Childcare can help drive the economy – forget the big boys' toys | Lucy Powell

I’m writing this piece on childcare while entertaining my new baby and toddler – Nick Clegg’s rehashed announcement on childcare funding for two-year-olds isn’t nearly as entertaining as colouring in or playing peek-a-boo but it has made me think that it’s time for us to stop playing with our toys and make the economic case for universal childcare. It is welcome news that 40% of disadvantaged two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare provision from next September. However this is just a drop in the ocean as to what parents need given the losses they’ve seen under this government.

Families face a triple whammy childcare crisis of the government’s own making with prices rising faster than inflation, places plummeting due to the slashing of supply-side funding and cuts to financial help with childcare costs through working tax credit. The government’s latest tax-free childcare announcement will help the richest the most and, according to the Resolution Foundation, could see the income of poorer families cut.

It’s time for government to stop tinkering and take childcare seriously. We see business case after business case for boys’ toys like planes and trains – high-speed rail and airport expansion. Government should develop the case for childcare as a key economic driver to get women – and it is still mainly women – back into work and earning their full potential to benefit not only families but also the country.

The case for free universal childcare should be seriously explored. The IPPR has shown that universal childcare – 25 hours of free childcare for children from one to four – would pay a return to the Exchequer of £20,050 over four years in terms of tax revenue minus the cost of childcare for every woman who returns to work full time after a year of maternity leave. Childcare investment would not only get our economy moving, it would also help the development of young children and begin to level the playing field between poorer children and their peers when they start school.

Childcare policy should be taken more seriously by the Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The minister for education and childcare, Elizabeth Truss, should work across both the Department for Education and BIS, making sure childcare is firmly on the growth agenda and employers and businesses are working to offer genuinely flexible working and shared parental leave that works for parents and employers. Local enterprise partnerships should be working with local government to make the local case for improved childcare as an infrastructure necessity, as they do for transport.

We won’t get more women back to work and our economy moving until we make a strong case for a radical extension of childcare support. It’s time we shouted louder for real help now for families and children.

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Childcare can help drive the economy – forget the big boys' toys | Lucy Powell
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