In December, I visited Downing Street with a group of "mums in business" to speak to Daniel Korski, the Prime Minister's special adviser, about what was needed to help mothers to get back into work. Every woman gave the same answer: affordable childcare – that omnipresent financial burden which affects all but the élite few who can afford live-in, on-tap care.
I work freelance from home, and have done since my son was born, 10 and a half years ago. In those very early days, it was my choice to work that way, but once my son turned four and a half and started school, the decision was made for me – I could not afford to take a full-time, office-based job because the cost of before-and-after-school care would make it barely worthwhile.
A decade on, little has changed – I still can't afford to work away from the house, and many mothers of my acquaintance tell me it is more financially sound for them to stay at home and not work at all, while others say childcare is the biggest issue that holds them back in the workplace, that increasing their hours or going for promotion would be pointless by the time they'd factored in childcare costs.
It was hardly surprising, then, to read the results of a recent survey from childcare providers findababysitter.com that revealed that childcare costs rose by an average of 19 per cent in the year to December 2013, with the cost of nannies alone escalating by 25 per cent on 2012's figures.
So what is the answer? Whose responsibility is it to provide families with adequate and affordable care for their children? The Coalition's promise of £1,200 tax-free childcare per child for families who earn up to £150,000 is all well and good, as long as there is cost-effective, local and reliable care on which to spend it – and care that is available when parents need it.
To me, the most obvious solution would be for more onus to be put on employers – particularly corporates – to provide assistance to their parent workforce. How often do we see big businesses wooing potential employees with their state-of-the-art gym facilities, interest-free travelcard loans and dress-down Fridays? Frequently. But an on-site crèche, after-school club, or flexi-working for parents? Rarely.
We live and work in a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week society and childcare is no longer just something that "mums" might need for an hour or so before or after school to enable them to do a part-time job, especially when the average after-school nanny charges £10 per hour. The Swedish model perhaps best reflects how modern living needs adaptable childcare – their public nurseries open from 6am to 6pm, with many local councils also providing affordable overnight and weekend services.
And looking at Europe as a whole, we can put in perspective just how expensive care is here in the UK. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's 2011 report, Doing Better for Families, only in Switzerland do parents pay more for childcare, with 26.6 per cent of the average British family's income being spent on it. The knock-on effect is that only 67.1 per cent of all UK mothers go out to work, compared with 84 per cent in Denmark, 78.5 per cent in the Netherlands and 73.6 per cent in France.
There will always be those in the "you choose to start a family" camp, who will never understand why childcare costs are anybody's concern other than parents'. But it is simple – it is a cyclical thing: the economy needs parents to return to work. Working parents provide jobs for those nannies, childminders and nurseries, who then care for, teach and nurture the future workforce. But that cycle can complete only if care is affordable – perhaps even to the point of being means-tested (it works for Sweden – parents do not pay more than 3 per cent of their salary for preschool care) – and available for all. And at the moment, it most definitely is not.