Thursday 17 May 2012

If We're Serious About Tackling Unemployment, Ending Child Poverty And Building A Strong Economy Then We Need To A Serious Child Care Strategy

Cllr. Caroline Needham (Lab)
Here is a guest report by Cllr. Caroline Needham, H&F Labour's Shadow Cabinet Member for Education and Children's Services:

London has some of the highest childcare costs in the country but Hammersmith and Fulham actually tops that with the average charge being £287 per week for a nursery place for a child under two years old. It is a challenge for all families to find a high standard of childcare that is affordable, local and flexible to the needs of the modern economy. So should national and local government do anything about this and if so what?

Ed Milliband has committed the Labour Party to undertaking a review of the role of childcare can play in our society’s capacity to achieve its social and economic goals. I believe our local council should do its bit too.   

Procuring high quality, flexible and affordable childcare is a concern for all families but it is particularly difficult for those households on low incomes. Research demonstrates that childcare is actually the key factor that helps parents on low incomes to: return to work; study; develop patterns of secure employment; and gain financial independence. The current lack of this causes too many parents to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of no-pay, to low-pay and back to no-pay again.

On 6 April 2012, the rules for Working Tax Credit for couples with children changed. Currently, couples have to work at least 16 hours a week between both parents. From April they will have had to increase their working hours to at least 24 hours, or they will lose their whole entitlement to Working Tax Credit which is worth £3,870 a year.

Figures from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs detail how there are 520 working families in both the Hammersmith and the Chelsea and Fulham parliamentary constituencies who will have lost income which therefore impacts adversely on the life chances of their 1,325 children.

Many parents will struggle to continue to afford childcare to enable them to work. So this government policy will also have had a negative impact on small businesses - many of whom will have had the stark choice of providing extra hours or losing staff who have young children.

In Hammersmith and Fulham there are a staggering 33,000.00 children living in poverty. The Borough’s Conservative Administration is still yet to announce any coherent policy to deal with this. The problem isn’t helped by the government’s incoherence which on the one hand has Children’s Centre partnerships and job centres encouraging parents back to work only for those parents to discover that it is impossible for them to now afford local child care.

We can look to Sweden, Norway and Denmark as good examples of tackling poverty and helping parents into work. In those countries parents can access affordable childcare from birth to age five. In Norway it is at a cost that's half the OECD average. In Denmark, childcare is free to the lowest-income families. In all cases there have been significant benefits to society, employers and their economies.

But in Hammersmith and Fulham the private sector is, for the majority of families, the only daytime child care option available. Apart from high prices, private nurseries have other hurdles too often requiring payment in advance, and/or hefty deposits, or some may even charge parents just for the privilege of being on their waiting list. Even those local families that earn above average incomes can struggle to get past those barriers.

Over the past thirty years the nature of work has changed. How people work, when they work and what employers expect is all different. London is a 24 hour city with many parents working shifts or long hours. Many find it impossible to continue their careers if they cannot source good child care that is sufficiently flexible, let alone affordable. The 5 day a week 8.00am to 6.00pm model of child care is often a mismatch for the ebbs and flows of modern working life.

Increasingly parents are choosing different models of working such as starting their own businesses, job-sharing or working from home. Parents are increasingly developing new resources based on their experience, for example, the social enterprise recruitment agency Women Like Us. This agency is currently lobbying for better range of part time opportunities in London in the light of evidence that part time work is disproportionately badly paid and is a ‘career choker’ for women.

Much of this is a problem that only national government has the scope to solve but there are intelligent, cost-effective measures that a good local council can do too. Over the next year I am beginning a wide ranging review of what that might be. The conclusions will be in Labour's next Borough manifesto. And, if the public vote us into office on 3rd May 2014, the new Labour Administration will put our childcare manifesto policies into action. If you would like to contact me about this area of policy development please email me here – I’d be happy to hear from you.

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