by Sarah Rabbitts
When the welfare state was established by the Labour party in 1945, it didn’t include childcare because the role of women was still defined in the home. In fact, it wasn’t in Labour’s manifesto ahead of the 1997 election either. It must be at the heart of Labour’s commitments ahead of the 2015 election.
Since the 1960s, women’s role in the workplace has changed radically – but there is still pressure on mothers to stay at home because of escalating childcare prices and the gender pay gap. Helen Kersley, from the new economics foundation, confirms that women will still earn significantly less than men, with or without children, and this can deter women from returning to work.
It’s been universally acknowledged that last week’s budget won’t benefit a large number of low-income families. The government has announced 20% tax relief on childcare costs of £1,200 a year for each child from 2015. However, this scheme is flawed and will benefit the better off. The resolution foundation says that only four in ten low income families will receive 85% of the childcare bill from the Government. The foundation’s analysis also suggests that 564,000 low income families will see 85% of their childcare bills paid but more than 900,000 would receive only the current 70% – the rebate which applies when one or both parents earn too little to pay income tax because many women work part-time.
This is a hard message, following the recent announcement that a single nursery worker should be able to look after four babies, below the age of two. Understandably, Elizabeth Truss’s policy was met with concern from parents, childcare providers and industry experts.
In response Labour must redefine the relationship between parents, the home and childcare providers again, so that more British mothers can afford to work part-time. It is unacceptable that co-habiting parents and single mothers are paying in the region of £1,400 a month, or a whole salary, for childcare. It only deters women from returning to work, where they could continue developing their skills and earning potential at the same rate as men.
Childcare legislation needs to better acknowledge that working mothers are good for the economy and family life. Recent studies show that most households need 1.5 incomes in order to have a good standard of living and that the salaries of women are continuing to increase whilst men’s are stagnating. Dr Anne McMann’s research into “Millennium Children”, examines the emotional development of 12,000 children born in 2000, and shows that children with working mothers are less likely to experience emotional problems and depression – which proves that children can benefit emotionally from having a working mother as well.
There’s another challenges facing the childcare industry in Britain. Punima Tanuka, chief executive of the national day nurseries association, says that nearly 80% of nurseries are independently owned in Britain. In a recent industry survey only 48% of childcare providers said that they’re financially breaking even, while many are running at a loss. She also points out that childcare workers are a low-paid workforce. In response to the Government’s proposals to increase the number of children in a single worker’s care, Labour must look at new ways of making this industry both affordable and more profitable without endangering the quality of childcare available. Could Britain offer more flexible working hours to men, so that both parents can share more childcare responsibilities? In addition, can childcare providers work more flexible hours in order to increase their income?
Denmark’s childcare policies are proving progressive, and more successful than Sweden’s. Denmark offers affordable childcare and flexible working hours to both parent’s and nearly all women go back to work after having children. Danish families pay up to 25% of the cost of day care, with those on low incomes or single parents paying between nothing and 25% of the cost, with discounts for siblings. The government makes up the difference.
Denmark made this scheme profitable within ten years, and across the Nordic countries high female employment has led to more taxable income. If we can encourage more women into work, despite the recession, is this something that Britain could afford in the next decade? If so, we may also be able to create more jobs in the childcare industry; which is good for the economy.
We must also remember that the government’s policies aren’t only endangering the quality of childcare in Britain right now and limiting rebates for lower income families. Yvette Cooper has been attacking the Government’s “mummy tax” that will cut women’s maternity pay, at the same time that 13,000 of this country’s most wealthy are receiving tax breaks. Further evidence that in opposition and ahead of the next election, Labour must stand-up for the rights of mothers and fathers.
Sarah Rabbitts is a Labour activist from Vauxhall CLP and was a short-listed candidate in the Eastleigh by-election.