There were years of campaigning, years of build-up and then – it happened. In this week’s Budget, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a major reform of the UK’s beleaguered and extortionately expensive childcare sector.
The inclusion was testament to the fact that, with an election on the horizon, what was once seen as the preserve of mothers has become a major issue in British politics. In her short-lived tenure, the former prime minister Liz Truss pledged reform. Rishi Sunak initially, quietly, dropped her plans. In his Autumn Statement in November, the Chancellor made no mention of childcare. And yet in March, they were one of the set pieces of his Budget.
Hunt’s plans included an expansion of the 30 free hours of childcare available to working parents with offspring between the ages of three and five: this will be available for parents of children aged nine months and above, and be introduced in a staggered way from April 2024. The Chancellor will also push for schools to provide “a full wraparound offer” of childcare for parents who struggle with a workday that is far longer than the school day. Parents on Universal Credit will be able to claim a higher rate for childcare, and – crucially – receive part of their funding upfront for the first time.
There was also a boost to funding for childcare settings that provide the 30 free hours of care, and a pilot scheme will offer an incentive of £600 to new childminders entering the profession, rising to £1,200 if they join through an agency.
The phrases “step in the right direction” and “welcome” did the rounds among the Twitterati response. But for many, the policy didn’t add up to a real solution for the problems faced by parents struggling to pay for some of the most expensive childcare in the OECD. Nor did it seem a sufficient tonic for the sector, which, according to the Early Years Alliance, is facing its worst crisis in recruitment and costs in 20 years. Between March 2021 and March 2022, some 4,000 providers closed down, the biggest decline since 2016.
Stella Creasy, Labour the Co-op MP for Walthamstow since 2010, has long campaigned for childcare reform. She was also one of the Budget’s sceptics. While the Chancellor announced a £4bn spending increase for the reform, research from the Confederation of British Industry estimated the full cost at £8.9bn. “Giving parents the right to ask for more hours without funding the full cost of those hours will cause the existing childcare system to crash as providers are forced to offer even more care at a loss,” she told Spotlight ahead of the Budget, as an exclusive report on Hunt’s plans was published in the Guardian.
She likened this week’s plans to Help to Buy, the government scheme that guaranteed high loan-to-value mortgages for first-time buyers, and which has been criticised for leaving young people in vast amounts of debt and pushing up house prices. “It’s as economically illiterate [as that],” she said. “The government policy pushed up demand without addressing supply, and so ended up making the housing cost more for first-time buyers, not less.”
Hunt’s childcare reforms tinkered with a system that is “fundamentally flawed and about to collapse”, as Creasy put it when we meet a few weeks before the Budget at her office in Portcullis House. Parliament had just returned from recess and Creasy was, coincidentally, about to head to a debate on the affordability and availability of childcare. The 45-year-old, who’s career in national politics followed another in local government, was wearing a bright green jacket and her office was filled with colour, too – from the books and Star Wars memorabilia on the shelves, to the pictures on her wall, including a child’s drawing of “Aunty Stella as a pirate”.
Various whiteboards showed her “campaign of action”, as she describes it – “any time a Conservative MP comes in here they gulp a little bit”. On one of the boards were the words “childcare” and “Levelling Up Bill”. The levelling-up white paper, released last year, notably omitted childcare as an issue, and Creasy’s amendment to the bill succeeded in redefining childcare as infrastructure – a major coup for campaigners. Among other things, that means property developers will have to ensure there is sufficient childcare provision in new building projects, and that councils will be able use the community infrastructure levy on new developments to fund those services. “Parents and potholes [should] get equal attention,” Creasy said in December when she put forward the amendment in parliament. And lo, it came to pass: as well as the childcare reforms, Hunt also used his Budget to pledge £200m towards fixing potholes.
“Putting childcare in as an economic infrastructure issue is about saying, ‘OK, what do we do with economic infrastructure?’ We invest in it. Because we recognise the return it makes,” she explains to me. And just as they need infrastructure like reliable public transport to get to the workplace, working parents need help looking after their children.
That this is now a political priority is evident not only from the Conservatives’ attempt at reform, but also Labour’s avowed commitment to “completely reimagine” childcare, as the shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has put it. So what’s changed?
“As somebody who’s been trying to talk about childcare for years, it was often like talking Klingon,” says Creasy. “It’s been seen as a niche issue for women. It’s not now.”
The difference is partly down to the pressure mounted by campaigns like Pregnant Then Screwed, whose founder Joeli Brearley refuses “to let politicians off the hook”, says Creasy. But it’s also about a paradigm shift: “Finally, people are seeing this not as an equalities issue, but an economics issue.” The UK is one of the least productive nations in the G7, she notes, and the rate of women leaving the workforce because of caring responsibilities is the highest it has been in decades.
The pandemic was pivotal too. “Mums were at home and watching government say, ‘Oh yes, we really ought to invest in potholes, but you parents, let’s give you a slap on the back and that’s enough for you,’ and it was like the… bubble burst and people said, ‘If we don’t organise, nothing will change.’”
Members of Parliament are not entitled to maternity leave. Creasy, a mother of two, was able to organise locum cover when she had her daughter in 2019 under a trial scheme, but this was not possible for when her son was born in 2021. It is illegal for an employer to ask a new mother to work in the first two weeks post-partum, but Creasy was already taking calls from her hospital bed.
Photos and videos of her in the Commons with a baby strapped to her chest highlighted the impossibilities of being a working mother – as did the fact she was told it was against parliamentary rules to bring a child into a debate. Responses to this were not wholly supportive of Creasy.
“I have faced a lot of abuse… for talking about” motherhood, she says, but also “for – because I didn’t have any maternity cover – thinking, well, I still need to do my job, which is why I ended up bringing my baby into the chamber”. In fact, it is on the issues of motherhood and childcare that she has received “the most hostility from my peers” in parliament.
For years, Creasy has called for universal childcare. So far, Labour’s commitments on this front have been vague. At Labour Party conference last year, Phillipson pledged universal free breakfast clubs for every primary school child. The party has also mooted reforms to allow councils to offer new childcare provision. Phillipson has travelled to Estonia, Ireland and Australia to learn from their examples, including from Australian Labor’s 2022 election win, which was helped by a major pledge on childcare subsidies.
But is this bold enough? Will we see properly funded and expanded early-years provision under Keir Starmer’s five national missions? Creasy is “really confident it’s going to be a key part of it because I see people like Rachel [Reeves] and Bridget [Phillipson] really driving it forward and really getting it.”
And what of Hunt’s reforms? Creasy has questions for the Treasury. What happens after 2026, when the government’s £289m of “start-up” funding for primary schools to provide wraparound care ends? What are parents of current one- and two-year-olds, who are working part-time, studying or retraining and are not eligible for the expanded hours scheme, supposed to do? At the moment, nurseries cross-subsidise the 30 free hours for three- and four-year-olds, which is underfunded by £2bn a year, by charging higher fees for one- and two-year-olds. How does the Treasury expect nurseries to cover the gap now?
And if the plan succeeds in bringing more people into the workforce, and subsequently more children into early-years settings, how will the government ensure there are enough places available?
After Sunak dropped Truss’s childcare plans, a group of Conservative backbenchers, led by Siobhan Baillie MP, pushed for reform behind the scenes. Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of women – and mothers – in politics and at the policymaking table; it is women, after all, who tend to pick up most of the childcare burden, and whose working life suffers when it goes wrong.
But Creasy insists we have to be careful with this line of thinking, lest we repeat the trope that this is a women’s issue. “My male colleagues who take their children to the lobby never had any of the abuse that I’ve had for doing it, that I’m somehow a terrible mother, whereas they’re a fantastic dad,” she says. “But that speaks to one of the challenges in this debate, and it happens in politics, too, where we think women will probably solve it. [But] everyone needs to be part of this, because everyone’s missing out when we don’t invest in childcare.”
Should Labour be irritated or flattered that the Conservatives have scooped them on childcare? The reform was a long-time coming, Creasy told me after the Budget was announced, and “the result of years of graft by many of us. It’s not a surprise – and as this policy has lots of flaws it’s not a solution.” Keir Starmer’s offer, she adds, will address the “issues that make this the start, not the end, of the conversation”.
An audio version of this interview was featured as a bonus episode on the New Statesman Podcast. You can listen to it here.
[See also: Why free childcare isn’t as good as it sounds]