It has long been known that childcare takes a disproportionate slice of parental income in London, where the cost of everything tends to be higher than elsewhere, and some of this is offset by London weighting or generally higher pay. But a study out today shows that parents in poorer areas, whether of London or other parts of the country, can find themselves spending more than a quarter of their income in this way. Families in Ebbw Vale and Newcastle find childcare comparatively as expensive, if not more so, than those in Wembley and Hackney.
This evidence that the high cost of childcare is not something unique to London should alert ministers to the reality that this is a national problem and should be treated as such. The Government already recognises the value of good early-years education for the poorest children. It must know, too, that unaffordable childcare cannot but hold back the economy by keeping many people, especially women, out of the work force and curbing families' spending power.
But the assumption seems to have been that parents are not just prepared, but able, to pay for good childcare, and that tweaking the present combination of tax breaks, childcare vouchers and free nursery hours is all that needs to be done. We disagree.
The Government's move to increase the number of free nursery hours for children from the poorest families is welcome, but nothing like enough. One partial remedy, for taxpayers, would be to abolish complicated tax breaks and make childcare tax-deductible. But the best solution would be to increase, not just marginally, but drastically, the number of state nurseries with opening times that suit the unsocial hours many parents, especially at the lower end of the pay scale, must work.
No one denies that good childcare costs money, but private nurseries are closing in the current economic climate, and for many parents trying to juggle paid work and childcare the sums do not add up. If the Government is serious about helping families, it needs to stop tinkering at the margins and create the conditions that make this possible. Affordable childcare, where and when parents want it, has to be a priority.