2014 is a proud anniversary for Labour and childcare marking the 10 year anniversary of our groundbreaking 10 year childcare strategy in 2004.
Labour is the party of childcare and early years. Our record stands for itself – investment in the early years made a difference to women and children in transformed life chances; and increased female employment. Today we can reflect and be proud that many of our aims were delivered. Radical policies like Sure Start, extending maternity leave, introducing paternity leave and flexible working, free childcare places, increased financial support and a relentless focus on driving up quality. Labour led the way but there was still more to do when we left office in 2010.
As we approach 2014 we find ourselves heading in the wrong direction. As a result of actions by this government families are finding it harder than ever with little prospect of Cameron’s childcare crunch getting easier. Nursery prices have risen five times faster than wages since 2010 and early years childcare places have fallen by 35,000. We’ve seen cuts to support for working families of up to £1500 through the slashing of tax credits. We are seeing the decimation of Sure Start with 578 fewer than in 2010 and many that remain offering reduced opening hours and services. These backward steps are damaging for children and their families.
It should still be seen as a scar on our country that we have some of the lowest levels of maternal employment in the OECD. Mums, and it is still mainly mums, are stuck at home priced out of the labour market by sky high childcare costs. 7 out of 10 mums say they want to work but can’t because of the childcare crunch. We also know that by the age of three there are already huge developmental inequalities in children. Both these problems should be drivers for ambitious and bold policies for the early years.
Labour’s extension of the free childcare offer for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours for working parents, worth £1500 per child, will make real inroads to tackling the crunch. It will mean a parent can work part time without having to worry about childcare costs.
Parents having to deal with the logistical nightmare of arranging before and after school childcare will be helped by Labour’s primary childcare guarantee ensuring that parents can access wrap around 8-6pm childcare through their school or nearby. I want to see this as a real quality offer making a difference to parents and children. These two policies are a sign of the importance Labour places on childcare but there is still much to do.
Pushing the economic case for better childcare will be a central part of my campaigning in 2014. Getting childcare right will empower families to make informed choices about work and family life and boost tax receipts. Too many women leave the labour market when they have a child only to return on a lower wage later in life. If women are to keep their earning potential and status we need to think about developing a childcare system that places the views and choices of parents at the heart. This will look at how government and business can better support parents around the time they want to return to work; and how dad’s can play more of a role.
Tackling the social mobility challenge fits in with this push for better high quality childcare – as a Labour Party we must not lose sight of the transformative power of quality early years provision and marrying economic and social justice arguments for investment in childcare is a key challenge ahead. Labour must be the champion of better life chances for children in2014.
Labour introduced 15 hours free early education for the most disadvantaged two year olds in 2009 and whilst we welcome its extension, the Government has failed to ensure all those promised a childcare place have got one, with 38,000 two year olds missing out. The Government needs to do more to ensure there is sufficient supply and demand to have the outcomes that we all want to see. However, government policies reducing the numbers of children’s centres and stripping £1.5 billion from the early intervention grant by 2015 mean that they are in danger of pulling the ladder away from the next generation.
We need to look at how all services that touch families in those early years are working together to close the inequality gap between the rich and the rest for the most vulnerable. We will be drawing on the best examples and evidence of what works so that we can finish the job we started.
Childcare is a key element of the cost of living crisis and parents across the country are feeling the pinch. Childcare will be at the heart of the 2015 election and is a key issue in battleground seats. The government has no answers on childcare. Labour will continue to champion affordable high quality childcare in 2014 and beyond, to ensure that in another 10 years we can look back at a proud record.
Lucy Powell MP is Labour’s Shadow Minister for Childcare and Children