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16 Jun 2023

Hot Take: Where do the political parties stand on childcare?

Hot Take: Where do the political parties stand on childcare?

Childcare has now become a key policy on the political battleground in the run up the next general election and all parties are looking to level up their offering. NMT editor, Briony Richter finds out more

We know that early education is not only critical for children’s development but essential in supporting parents, especially mothers, stay in work. However, the cost of childcare in the UK is rising faster than inflation and with an ever-increasing recruitment crisis, debates on how to boost support have moved up the political agenda. 

So, let’s take a look at where the main parties stand.

The Conservatives

The Conservative party made childcare a leading part of this year’s Spring Budget to get more people back into work. 

It was announced that £4 billion would be invested into the sector in a move that Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt claims will reduce costs for a family by nearly 60%. However, many childcare and business organisations have stated that at least double this amount is needed if the government is serious about supporting both parents and providers. 

Universal childcare offering 
Currently eligible working parents in England of three- and four-year-olds already get 30 hours a week of free childcare. 

The Conservatives have pledged to increase this offering in three staggered stages.

From April 2024, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare

  1. From September 2024, 15 hours of free childcare will be extended down to the age of nine months 
  2. From September 2025, working parents of children aged nine months and upwards will be entitled to 30 hours free childcare per week right up to their child starting school. 

While this is a step in the right direction, it’s important to highlight that the Conservative party have been in power since 2010 and have had numerous opportunities to inject more funding into the sector over the past decade. 

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “While on the surface, news that the government has reportedly committed to spending £4bn on the early years appear positive, as always, the devil is in the detail, and we await further confirmation about what this will mean for the early years sector over the coming months and years.

“We know from harsh experience that what can sound like an impressive investment in theory can end up being wholly inadequate in practice, and so understanding exactly how this announcement will translate into hourly funding rate changes, especially in light of the extension of the 30 hours offer to one- and two-year-olds, will be key to understanding the impact on the sector.”

Labour

Labour is currently coming under fire for supposedly flip flopping on their childcare policy and this has unfortunately jumped around between the oppositions leaders over the past few years. 

Previously, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, he pledged to further extend childcare entitlement. The party stated that it would spend £4.5bn on expanding the entitlement to all children aged three and four and extending it to all two-year-olds. 

Fast forward to this year, the Labour are having a tricky time getting their core childcare goals across to the public. 

Earlier this year, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson told the Sunday Times that the party’s childcare offer would be ‘like the change that we saw post-1945 with the creation of the NHS’ which suggested a further expansion on what Labour has previously pledged under different leadership.

However, the party is now looking to a means tested offering to support families on the lowest incomes as well as financially supporting providers more which was largely left out in the Conservatives’ Spring Budget announcement.

A Labour spokesperson said: “An expansion of childcare to all children is not Labour’s policy. Last year Labour announced that as part of its plans to modernise childcare that we will deliver free breakfast clubs for all primary school pupils in England, paid for by closing the non-dom tax loophole, and allowing councils to offer more childcare provision where they are able to do so.

“Everything in our manifesto will be fully costed, fully funded, and subject to our fiscal rules.”

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats set out clear goals in their 2019 manifesto to completely overhaul the childcare sector. 

They pledged to start with a bold offer of free childcare from the of age nine months (the end of paid parental leave).

The average annual cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two in the UK is now a shocking £14,836, according to a report by the charity, Coram. The costs have risen by nearly 6% in the past year and the Liberal Democrats stated that delivering free childcare will help parents and carers financially and allow them to choose a balance of childcare and work that fits their individual situations.

Their childcare manifesto commitments included: 

  • Free childcare from nine months for all working parents, properly funded
  • Increase the funding for these free hours to cover the actual cost of nursery provision 
  • Invest £1 billion a year in Children’s Centres to support families and tackle inequalities in children’s health, development and life chances 
  • Triple the Early Years Pupil Premium (to £1,000) to give extra help to disadvantaged children who are at risk of falling behind from the very beginning of their education
  • Introduce ‘baby boxes’ in England, as advocated by the Royal College of Midwives, to provide babies and parents with essential items to help with health and development.

The Liberal Democrats currently have a working group on early years education and childcare which will report further on childcare plans during the Autumn Conference at the end of September.  

SNP

The system in Scotland is quite different to that in England in terms of ratios and funded places. 

The new First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf has pledged to extend free childcare to one and two-year-olds - a pledge the SNP made ahead of 2021 Holyrood election. 

Currently, three and four-year-olds can access up to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare a year, which is around 30 hours a week in term time.

Yousaf has vowed that he will use his first Budget to expand free childcare provision with the aim of offering 22 hours a week throughout the year to all one and two-year-olds, a move he claims will cost around £100 million in the 2024/25 financial year.

Earlier this year, Yousaf spoke on this vision for expanding free childcare: “In my first budget as Scotland’s first minister, I will accelerate the rollout of free early years education for one and two-year-olds in Scotland – offering high-quality childcare for 22 hours a week, all year round.

“As first minister, my Helping Hand Fund would help working families by easing that burden, offering £500 loans towards the first stages of childcare to help all parents in Scotland returning from leave back into employment.”
 

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