Labour party cannot afford to stay silent on childcare and early years policy

8 March 2024

By Rosie Fogden

5 minute read

On International Women’s Day, Centre for Progressive Policy ’s Director of Research & Analysis Rosie Fogden argues that worker rights are synonymous with women’s rights and mother’s rights and that the Labour party cannot afford to stay silent on childcare and early years policy if they want to “make Britain work for working people”.

Today is international women’s day, a day that has its origins in the women’s labour movement and fight for better working conditions in US factories. With living standards stagnant and levels of in-work poverty rising in the UK, worker rights and the experiences of ‘working families’ have come back into policy fashion and the Labour party are promising to strengthen workers’ rights from day one should they win the upcoming election.

The fight for worker rights is closely tied to women’s labour market rights and experiences, as whilst men are more likely to be in paid work , women are more likely to be on low pay and to be trade union members. In the UK, we also celebrate Mother’s Day this Sunday. The vast majority of mothers with dependent children are employed (77%) but it is widely recognised - most recently by PwC – that motherhood is where the gender pay gaps starts and to blame for its persistence.

As I write this blog, I am about to go on maternity leave to have my second child. Work-wise, this is where it tends to go wrong. According to the ONS, the number of families where the mothers work part time and the father full time increases by 30% when families go from one to two children. Part-time doesn’t have to be a bad thing, I already work 4 days. But organisations like Timewise have shown that there is a pay and progression penalty associated with needing to work part-time and CPP’s own research suggests that many women want to work more hours. So why don’t they? Our surveys suggest that lack of access to flexible working and suitable childcare are major factors, particularly as childcare can be prohibitively expensive. A recent survey by campaigning charity Pregnant then Screwed finds that 37% of parents with a child under the age of 5 said they had to use credit cards, take out a loan or borrow money from family or friends to pay for childcare.

I have been “lucky” to have a flexible and inclusive employer and partner who is as committed to childcare as their career. But this is not the norm and many of my friends have chosen to hold off having children. In the UK, the total fertility rate - the average number of children a woman can expect to have over her childbearing lifespan – decreased in 2022 to 1.49, the lowest figure on record. And this fall was driven by changes amongst my age group – those aged 30-34 years old.

Having children has a high cost attached, particularly for women, and fertility in the UK has been decreasing since 2010 after rising through the 2000’s. The pivot in 2010 with a change of government and the fact that this trend is more pronounced in the UK than in other countries suggest that policy can make a difference.

Yet despite advocating for worker rights, Labour has gone quiet on childcare and early years reforms, apparently silenced by Hunt’s £4 million expansion of the entitlement to funded hours for working families last March. Whether this policy, which rolls out from April, will actually support the parents and families that need it most, remains to be seen. But issues with recruitment and retainment in the sector point to wider systemic problems.

Sociologist Sara Farris argues that “childcare is following in the footsteps of care homes” in seeing an increase in the prevalence of business models that can reward investors while worsening working conditions for its low-paid and predominantly female workforce and without improving parental access. Last year, the Guardian reported that investment funds had doubled their stake in the childcare sector between 2018 and 2022 with 7.5% of all nursery places controlled partially or wholly by investment companies. These companies don’t necessarily have the same objectives as charities, councils, government or even smaller local businesses and increasing their control could lead to volatility of supply or insufficient coverage in poorer places.

At a time of tight budgets and stretched public services, we need to make sure that public money spent on childcare is having the desired impact. For the sake of both women trying to access childcare to work and women working in the childcare sector itself, the Labour party needs a plan for childcare and early years if they want to “make Britain work for working people”. And with women making up half of the electorate and around one in seven potential voters being a mother with dependent children, it makes no sense to stay silent.

In the coming months CPP will be taking a closer look at fertility trends in the UK and thinking about how the next government can make sure that the public money being put into childcare and early years actually benefits women and their families, particularly those living in more deprived places.