Jayne Dowle: Can a few hours of free nursery help job market?

THERE was one home truth which Chancellor Philip Hammond did not utter in his Autumn Statement as he came up with various wheezes to help working parents.

The cost of childcare in this country is now by far the highest in the Western world, according to recent research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Just short of 34 per cent of a British family’s net income is spent on nursery fees. That’s more than a third of every month’s pay packet; a full-time nursery place for a child under two now costs £222 a week, so working parents are spending £11,300 a year on average on childcare.

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This makes it extremely hard in many families for both parents to earn enough to make ends meet. So much for the attempts of successive governments to persuade more women into the workplace. In purely financial terms, it simply doesn’t make sense. And this is especially galling because we compare so badly to other countries.

When Ministers talk of taking steps to ensure that a post-Brexit Britain can compete on an equal economic footing with the rest of Europe, how can they make their grandiose statements without taking the personal cost of doing so into account?

Across the 35 industrialised nations of the OECD, the average outlay on childcare is just 13 per cent of income. Lucky parents in France and Germany, where childcare is the most affordable, have to put aside less than 10 per cent of their monthly earnings.

The cost of nursery is now so expensive that mortgage companies are refusing to agree home loans to parents who rely on this kind of childcare so they can hold down a job. How can this be right? And how can a supposedly civilised country have got itself into this situation?

I know what the answer is. Too much reliance on private sector provision and greedy nursery companies cashing in at parental expense. Unfortunately, this continues to be ignored in the smokescreen of the Prime Minister’s vow to help families who are “Just About Managing”.

For too long now the debate over the ridiculous cost of childcare has centred on helping those who might be otherwise deterred from entering the workplace, instead of helping those who already have a job.

Thanks to a £1bn scheme introduced by David Cameron’s government, all three and four-year-olds are already entitled to 15 hours of free childcare a week, and this has been extended to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. Furthermore, following a pilot scheme in various areas, including Bradford, Sheffield, Wakefield, and the East Riding and North Yorkshire in our region, from next year working parents of three and four-year-olds will be entitled to a total of 30 hours free childcare per child.

It sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? However, unless Theresa May’s ministers are planning a serious U-turn, the Government continues to miss the point. On at least two counts. What this policy means is that all parents, whether working or not, can put their pre-school child in nursery for up to three hours a day for free. I presume the Ministerial assumption was that faced with this option, stay-at-home parents would galvanise themselves into finding a job.

As far as I can deduce, there has been no official research undertaken to establish if this has come to pass. From personal experience in my area, I believe it not to be the case. I have several friends who work in nurseries and their conclusion is that with some exceptions, many parents are simply taking advantage of the free childcare on offer to enjoy some time to themselves.

Clearly, the Government took a massive gamble and assumed that the cost of childcare was the only barrier to seeking gainful employment. I shall refrain from casting judgement on those parents who choose to spend those 15 hours a week shopping and having their hair done – and it does happen, believe me. Instead I shall ask the question that Ministers really should have pondered before they plunged into this venture; what kind of feasible job can a mother find which only requires her to work three hours a day, or 15 hours a week in total? There aren’t many.

In addition, why focus the investment on free childcare on older pre-schoolers? What about mothers obliged to return to work when their children are still babies? There is no widespread financial support for them, unless their employer offers cursory “childcare vouchers”, which never cover the full cost of care and may even be subject to tax and National Insurance.

If the Government really wants to know why so many women turn their backs on work when they start a family, that’s where they need to look. In so many families, it simply isn’t viable for both parents to go out to work when a baby comes along.

And once a mother decides to opt out of the office, it’s hard to persuade her to return, however tempting the carrot of 30 hours free childcare when their child reaches the grand old age of three might be.