Bill for domestic help doubles in five years

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The Independent Online

British families spend more than £9bn a year on an army of domestic staff who look after their children, do the cleaning, wash the clothes and keep the garden tidy.

British families spend more than £9bn a year on an army of domestic staff who look after their children, do the cleaning, wash the clothes and keep the garden tidy.

A study published today shows that spending on domestic services has doubled in five years and is one of the fastest- growing areas of consumer spending. In 1997, the nation spent about £4.3bn on hired domestic help. The latest findings show that 2.7 million homes now regularly employ help, spending an average £73 a week - or £3,500 for a 48-week year - on cleaners, gardeners, ironers, nannies and child-minders.

The trend is strongest among busy middle-class professionals but increasingly young couples, flatmates and single men are also paying someone else to mop the floor and clean the oven. The surge in the number of working women, including mothers, the culture of long office hours and the desire for more leisure time have all led more people to pay for help.

Pam Bader, chief executive of Molly Maids UK, one of the country's biggest domestic cleaning companies, said the types of client had changed in the past few years. "It is no longer the upper-middle classes who are employing domestic help but a much wider range of people from all backgrounds," she said.

"More than half are young professionals, couples or just flatmates who don't want to spend the whole weekend arguing about whose turn it is to clean the bathroom. An increasing number of young single men are putting part of their budget aside to keep their homes in good condition."

The study showed that cleaners and gardeners remain the most popular domestic help. On average Britons employ cleaners for four hours each week at £4.85 per hour and gardeners for two hours a week at £6.46.

However, according to the insurer Norwich Union, which commissioned the research, two in three families who pay for domestic help do not check references or do any background research on employees, although the majority give them a set of keys. Hired help is often alone in the house and nine out of ten are paid in cash.

James Duffell, survey director of Norwich Union, said: "Many home owners have a haphazard attitude to employing in the home, even though as a nation we're spending billions of pounds a year on cleaners, gardeners and nannies."

The company has issued a guide, called "Domestic Bliss", which gives tips on what to look for when recruiting or looking for work. Mr Duffell said it would "help employers plan the job and work better with their employee so it's a positive and safer working relationship".

Caroline Underwood, a 40-year-old GP in south London, has employed domestic help ever since she married. She has two sons, Max, 10 and Miles, 8 and lives with her husband, Richard, who is a professor of nuclear cardiology at the Royal Brompton Hospital.

She has had a team of staff to look after the children, house and garden, but now only employs a live-in nanny, Petra, a part-time housekeeper and occasionally a handyman. She estimates the cost at about £300 a week.

"I work 50 or 60 hours a week and don't want to be doing the ironing or cleaning when I can spend time with the children, helping with their homework or going out," she said.

"I have not cleaned a toilet or ironed a shirt for over 10 years. My time is expensive and valuable. If you can earn £100 a hour why not spend £10 to £15 employing someone to do domestic chores for you? It seems ridiculous to me. I'm not good at it and don't like it. I've always relied on a team."