"...Access to childcare is vital for breaking glass ceilings, whether it’s for single parents and working women; for people in low-paid roles who are trying to work their way up and out of poverty; or for anyone trying to avoid becoming downwardly-mobile if their existing childcare arrangements dry up"John Penrose MP, Conservative MP and co-Chair of the Commission on Childcare
28 February 2023
Access to childcare is vital for breaking glass ceilings
John Penrose MP
We have to find and solve the causes of the UK's internationally high childcare costs, so parents can find high-quality, safe and affordable care
John Penrose MP is a Conservative MP and co-Chair of the Commission on Childcare
This essay is taken from our new edition of Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare. Read the full collection here
Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare
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The UK’s childcare problem is wearily familiar to everyone. Whether it is provided for free by a non-or-part-time working partner, grandparents or friends, or from a paid-for service by a nursery or other childcare professionals, any parent with not-yet-independent children who doesn’t want to put their career on hold needs access to it if they want to avoid being trapped under a particularly thick glass ceiling. A ceiling which means they are unable to work a few extra hours to improve their pay or apply for a promotion, or switch to a sector with more travel or longer and less-predictable hours if it conflicts with their caring responsibilities. Almost everyone acknowledges that access to childcare is vital for breaking glass ceilings, whether it’s for single parents and working women; for people in low-paid roles who are trying to work their way up and out of poverty; or for anyone trying to avoid becoming downwardly-mobile if their existing childcare arrangements dry up – for example, if a spouse or partner leaves, or if a grandparent dies or moves away.
So far, successive UK governments have tried to break this glass ceiling by subsidising the costs for less well-off parents, with schemes like the universal 15 hours’ free childcare for all three- and four-year-olds; a further 15 hours for less well-off working parents of two- to four-year-olds; and a tax-free childcare scheme. There are also plans for high-quality wraparound holiday childcare due to be announced soon. The cost to the taxpayer of these schemes is already high – over £3.6 billion in 2020/21, for example – and, given the entire industry’s difficulties with retaining staff, rising costs mean this expense is likely to increase even further in future unless something changes.
If an entire industry is hardly profitable at the same time as charging internationally high prices and struggling to retain staff, there is clearly a fundamental and structural problem with its costs. And continuing to subsidise those costs with ever-bigger contributions from already-hard-pressed taxpayers will simply treat the symptoms rather than solving the underlying problems. We have to find and solve the causes of these internationally high costs, so parents can find high-quality and safe childcare that isn’t nearly so pricey in the first place. That’s why I’ve launched a cross-party independent commission with the help of the Social Market Foundation to look at these underlying fundamentals. I hope we will come up with proposals to reduce costs, while still delivering a safe and enriching level of service.
I also hope we will look more broadly than the costs, to address the underlying reasons that created that enormously thick and opportunity-destroying glass ceiling in the first place. Genuinely flexible working that allows parents to contribute as equally valued and productive team members while juggling their caring responsibilities is something that’s easy to promise, but extremely hard for many employers to deliver. The solutions need to be varied, because what’s right for a seasonal hospitality business won’t work for a small construction firm, a high-pressure legal partnership or a factory that needs 24-hour shift work. There are many techniques and job designs that work well in particular industries or types of role but not in others. Plenty of public, private and third sector employers know that flexible working could help them attract and retain the very best talent, but too many of them don’t have the confidence or capabilities to know what specific approaches would be right for their organisations.
“We have to find and solve the causes of these internationally high costs, so parents can find high-quality and safe childcare that isn’t nearly so pricey in the first place”John Penrose MP, Conservative MP and co-Chair of the Commission on Childcare
Some of those answers might need new laws: for example, we might decide to split today’s grossly lopsided maternity and paternity leave differently, so parents still have the same amount of overall time off between them, but each has an equal and swappable allowance, so employers have to treat all parents equally. Or we might decide to equalise treatment for adoptive and surrogate parents to match birth parents. But plenty of the answers will need improved employment techniques instead of extra laws or red tape – one solution could be a new employment standard on how to deliver flexible working productively from the British Standards Institute (the UK’s national body responsible for producing technical standards on products, services and businesses).
However we do it, these changes would make a huge difference to both hard-working parents and to taxpayers too. It would improve social mobility and meritocracy by bringing employment within reach for many more people, particularly single parents and working women, reducing gender pay gaps and giving firms a bigger, better pool of talent to choose from when they are recruiting or promoting to fill a particular role. It would give anyone who is ambitious but currently caught in a low-paid role a better chance at promotion and developing their career. Anyone whose childcare arrangements collapsed at short notice would have less risk of losing their job because they’d find a broader and deeper pool of affordable alternative suppliers instead. Plus, it would make an entire industry more economically productive and efficient too, while at the same time reducing burdens on taxpayers and potentially freeing up space for tax cuts in future too. What’s to dislike about that?