The high cost of childcare has long kept mothers from returning to work. But recent increases in childcare costs could be about to dissuade them even further.
Research conducted by The Daycare Trust found that nursery care has increased by nearly 6% and childminders by 3.8% year-on-year. Childcare in the UK is already among the most expensive in the world with 28% of the average income for a two-earner household being spent on childcare alone. In April, child tax credits are to be reduced or scrapped altogether. Furthermore, those households where just one parent pays higher-rate income tax stand to lose all their child benefit from January under government plans.
As the gap between affordable childcare and working mothers pay gets wider, so too will female unemployment rise. It is already at 1.09 million – the highest level since 1988.
So what can be done?
Enlightened employers are already offering help with childcare through voucher schemes, working hours that suit and the flexibility to work from home. But as employers are only legally obliged to seriously consider flexible working requests, and are not obliged to create family-friendly arrangements, it’s not consistent from firm to firm. Much progress has been made since the 2003 Employment Act was introduced – but what really needs to be addressed is the lack of affordable childcare for the under-fives.
London and the South East have the lowest level of childcare provision in England per head, and the most expensive preschool care. So as childcare costs rise quicker than inflation, while most people’s salaries fail to keep up with prices, what will become of our working mums?
Bringing baby to work won’t be an option for the majority of mums – they can’t all be like Italian MEP, Licia Ronzulli who brought her baby Victoria to sit in on a vote in European Parliament. Centre-left think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has suggested free childcare should be introduced to all mothers returning to work, arguing that the additional income tax would – over four years – generate enough money for the policy to pay for itself. The IPPR cites evidence from Canada to make a case that subsidising childcare would also encourage women back to the workplace: when the policy was introduced in Quebec, there was a 3.8% rise in female employment.
In the short-term, though, mums will be looking for cheaper, reliable alternatives for childcare.
It’s not surprising, then, that grandparents are fast becoming the most common source of childcare support – with 52% of mothers receiving regular help from their parents. Grandparents are the obvious solution: they already have a relationship with the child, often hold similar values to the parents, have bags of parenting experience, are close at hand, trusted… and cheaper than the average childcare, if not free.
My parents, in-laws and childminder were all called into duty when I first returned to work. Like many mums I had to improvise and do a lot of juggling to be able to afford to work. It was hectic but it gave my daughter the best of every world and made for a very happy mummy.
But be warned: grandparents are only a temporary solution. They won’t complain, as they love your children as much as they loved you. But it is more difficult once one grandchild has become two, or three.
After all, grandchildren are meant to be a joy – not a job.
Rebecca Kearley returns as Supermum in a fortnight