Childcare is a looming political battle that is long overdue

Give me the child and I’ll show you the voices. Well not exactly, but a significant struggle threatens as the issue of childcare comes up on the political agenda, driven primarily by the rise in the cost of preschool care.

The growing awareness of state support for childcare in a time of declining birth rates and tight labor markets is not unique to the UK. In the US, Joe Biden is offering to expand free provision. Anthony Albanese, Australia’s new prime minister, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have also promised huge increases in support. These expansions of public funding by center-left leaders have not gone unnoticed by the UK Labor Party.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it is primarily a cost of living issue and a political issue. Tories expect most parents to pay their share of the costs. But for the UK’s main progressive parties, Labor, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, the issue is seen as a broader social claim needed for extension beyond the main policy of 15 hours a week free childcare for all three and four year. -ages (30 hours in Scotland, and an extra 15 in England for many working parents).

But Tories is ready to feel a problem now. The Coram childcare survey shows that part-time nursery costs for children under the age of two have risen by 59 percent since 2010 – for babysitters by 43 percent. It’s the most acute in London and south – east commuter belt seats, so the issue is excessively important to a group of voters in a demographic losing the party. At the last election, conservatives fell far behind in the main age groups for young parents, a trend that is now more pronounced.

Gross childcare fees as part of net household income for a two-earner couple on average wage (2020)

The Downing Street Policy Unit focuses on the issue, looking at market solutions and how to expand supply. The Tory think tank, Onward, is working on ideas with a group of newer female MPs.

This attention is in arrears. As with social care, problems are legion. British state support is in line with the OECD average, although far behind France and the Nordic countries. But the pandemic and funding pressure led to the loss of 5 per cent of early-year suppliers in England between April 2020 and July 2021. There is a very high turnover of poorly paid staff. A Nuffield Foundation survey found that the average wage in the sector in 2019 was £ 7.42 per hour with 45 per cent of childcare workers claiming benefits.

There is limited public assistance for the youngest children. And the multiple schemes are confusing and repulsive with some benefit claimants being paid in arrears. Labor has also highlighted significant deficits in government funding to councils to cover the cost of care.

The first focus is regulation. Downing Street wants to increase the permissible ratios of children to adults, which is among the lowest in Europe, although this partly reflects the lower level of qualifications in the UK. It was proposed when a decade ago the coalition government put it on the grid over concerns about a security response – and fears that savings would not be passed on. But it will ease cost pressures and allow for higher wages. Tories also see room to ease the Ofsted rules on babysitters in their own homes.

Graph showing the maximum number of children per staff member in center-based early years provision among selected European countries, 2018-19

Simplifying the hotchpot of support schemes is a priority, especially tax-free childcare, which is worth up to £ 2,000 a year but has a very low uptake. In the four years since the scheme was introduced to replace employer childcare vouchers, it has underspent £ 2.3bn and covers only about 300,000 out of 1.3 million qualifying children. Some MPs want to review tax incentives for employers to help.

An obvious problem is that the focus on three- and four-year-olds leaves parents of younger toddlers with little help – often at the moment of the greatest need (benefit claimants can get 15 free hours for two-year-olds). Andrea Leadsom, the former cabinet minister who led a review of the early-year policy, suggests that parents choose how to use paid free hours. Yet there is also a desire among Tories to give voters more support. One reasoned: “It can not be all about relationships and regulation.”

Labor’s point of departure is different. Bridget Phillipson, secretary of shadow education, looks approvingly at the policies of progressive parties elsewhere. However, with limited space for spending promises, Labor will have to make choices, and half of parents do not use paid childcare in the first two years. Phillipson prioritized “envelope care” at the beginning and end of the school day and holiday clubs at elementary schools.

Growth in part-time childcare for 0-1 year olds, average earnings and general prices since 2010

But the long-term aspiration is clear and a manifesto promise to expand support is likely. Labor MPs recall that three- and four-year childcare was a signature policy of the Blair government – and drove the expansion of the sector. Once again, the issue offers Labor a chance to combine a popular promise with a broader social policy objective.

The dividing lines seem clear. A more market-based solution with limited extra help for parents now, as opposed to the progressive drive for better funding and more universal provision. And yet a Tory party concerned about the loss of young families and female voters, especially in the south, can see the need for an election for a brave signal.

Either way, no one can look to another care service that is characterized by poor pay, low morale and funding and not see that the current crisis is a function of underlying problems. Lowering prices now matters, but it is a symptom of a sector with much greater challenges.

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