Are we nearly there yet?

For 50 years trade unions have been arguing that proper provision of childcare is central to improving the lives of many workers. As Ann Henderson shows, progress is simply not fast enough.

Good quality, accessible childcare is an essential component of our society today. There is a shortage of places, with demand far outstripping supply, yet it is widely accepted that childcare provision is of benefit to both the child and the parent, and needed by the employer. In September 2010 the Scottish Government published the annual childcare statistics. Showing a reduction in available places in playgroups, crèches, after school clubs and family centres, the Chair of the STUC Women’s Committee Elaine Dougall pointed out ‘…women in particular may not be able to continue in employment – and jobs are being lost in the childcare sector itself.’

This is not a new concern for the trade union movement. In the Co-operative Hall in Dumfries in 1965 the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) brought forward a Motion which was carried “That this Conference of Unions Enrolling Women Workers calls on the Government to introduce measures which would lead to the provision of adequate facilities for the care of the children of working mothers during working hours, namely, by setting up of nurseries where there is a demand for them and by creating a supervisory service during school holidays and during the hours between the end of the school day and the end of the working day. These measures would save children’s lives and help to bring the full emancipation of women, with consequent economic benefits to the country.” In 1972, the annual Women’s Conference in the Co-operative Hall, Dunfermline, heard the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers Engineering Section (AUEW) “That this Women’s Conference requests the General Council to demand that Nursery Schools be part of the free State Educational System. Our economy cannot function without women workers: therefore it is a State responsibility to provide nurseries together with after-school and holiday facilities to enable those who desire to go out to work to do so.” In Kirkcaldy at the Adam Smith Theatre, November 1984, the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) responded to the Conservative Government’s decision to treat workplace nurseries as a ‘perk’ through the taxation system, placing childcare in the same category as a company car for tax purposes “(this) fails to recognise the necessity of good quality childcare in ensuring equality of opportunity in employment.” And in November 2010, at the recent STUC Women’s Conference in Perth the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) highlighted the difficulties faced by shift workers in the transport sector with totally inadequate childcare provision, whilst also pointing out “..Conference is mindful, in these times of draconian cuts and rising unemployment, that issues such as the provision of childcare can be pushed down the agenda and regarded as a luxury that we cannot afford. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

It is interesting to note the common themes of the impact of inadequate childcare provision on women’s ability to stay in the labour market. The policies adopted at the STUC Women’s Conferences are very clear that the services needed include after school clubs and school holiday cover, and that there should be no charge at the point of access. So what is the reality? Since 2006, there has been a reduction in places, with the number of childcare places in Scotland falling from 10,468 to 10,191. Alongside that reduction in places, costs have risen for families. The Labour Government of 1997 made early years work and childcare a high priority, with a massive expansion of free nursery education provision for all three and four year olds of 12.5 hours a week, along with a complicated Tax Credit system to assist families in meeting the cost of additional hours required. Initially many families benefited from the Tax Credits, with a real increase in the household income. However, there was criticism over the reliance on the private sector to deliver the childcare places needed, albeit often in partnership with voluntary sector and local authorities. A massive expansion of state provision, free at the point of delivery, would have been the STUC’s preference.

The Daycare Trust is a UK national childcare charity, which has been working since November 1986 to promote high quality affordable childcare for all. The latest annual survey showed that the average parent working part-time (England) could be spending more than half their wages before tax on a nursery place for a child under two. Nursery costs for children over two in the East Midlands had risen by an average 23.5 per cent in the previous year. The findings also reveal a shortage of childcare places across the UK, with 58 per cent of family services reporting parents struggling to find childcare. Local authorities up and down the country also report significant shortages of childcare places for children with disabilities. In a sector characterised by unstable funding streams over the years, this is causing considerable concern for the future.

With more women in the workforce than ever before, this recession is making its impact felt differently. Manufacturing and heavy industry in Scotland was already dealt a heavy blow by Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. With cuts in public spending looming, child tax credits removed from many families, and an attack on the principle of universality for child benefit, there can be no confidence that the Coalition Government actually intends to support women in the workforce. In Scotland the SNP administration came to power in 2007 on a promise to increase by 50 per cent the amount of free nursery education available for three and four year olds. This has not been achieved, and the Government, when pressed, passes responsibility to the local authorities. Without clearer direction from central government, irrespective of political persuasion, childcare provision will not expand to meet the need that we know is there. The nursery education offered, for part of each day, requires the provision of ‘wrap-round childcare’ to support parents in work, and as already mentioned, the statistics show a decline in that.

Childcare is not just a question about supporting women and men in the labour market. The Early Years framework and early years reports demonstrate that good quality childcare can make a significant difference to a child’s start in life. In England the ‘Sure Start’ initiative under the Labour Government has been tremendously successful. In the Scottish Parliament the Finance Committee ‘Inquiry into Preventative Spending’ has taken evidence from a number of organisations, highlighting the benefits to children of early intervention in their lives, including nursery education and in childcare. Tackling the economic recession through jobs and growth, rather than through cuts and mass unemployment, must see childcare placed at the centre of the strategy. Jobs would be created in the childcare sector, and parents can work without juggling many other arrangements The absence of childcare services, or excessive cost, has been putting grandparents into the front line for childcare duties to allow daughters and sons to work. But the impending changes in pension entitlement, combined with an ageing population where people will have to work to retain their own financial independence, will make it harder for parents to rely on their grandparents for childcare, often not a decision taken freely.

Another point to consider in the months ahead will be the impact of the changes in the Job Seekers Allowance and benefit system. Since 25 October, single parents must now actively ‘seek work’ once their child is seven. As we know that there are not enough out of school places for children already, and that most jobs are not planned around school hours and holidays, this is going to place families under intolerable pressures. Despite promises of personalized support from the JobCentre for lone parents in seeking work, one of the major concerns remains the lack of suitable childcare. Restricting options for work, partly because of the constraints posed by lack of childcare, will see many lone parents continuing to be paid low wages and living in poverty.

When talking about childcare policy, Scandinavian countries are often cited. A brief look at Sweden illustrates well a different direction, and one which could be considered here. Childcare in Sweden is organised in a similar way to that in the UK in terms of types of provision, with pre-schools (day nurseries), family daycare homes (run by municipal childminders), open pre-schools and leisure time centres (equivalent to out-of-school clubs). All pre-school establishments also have to be assessed by the government and meet certain standards. However, the key difference lies with the funding – while most pre-school childcare is provided by the private sector in the UK, Swedish nurseries are financed partly by central government grants, partly by tax revenue and partly by parental fees. There is no need for the complex Tax Credit and reimbursement system, nor is it possible for the percentage of a parent’s income that is spent on childcare to go above two or three per cent. Compare that to the Daycare Trust figures quoted earlier, with some workers spending more than 50 per cent of their salary on childcare costs. Interestingly there are also more men employed in childcare in Sweden than in the UK (over five per cent as compared to less than one per cent) which may be indicative of the sector having more status.

Investing in childcare provides employment, and should be at the heart of our jobs and growth strategy. Equality of access to good health, nutrition, and early years education for all children, is in the interests of society as whole. In Scotland choices could be made with public finance allocations. With the exception of some additional funding to support childcare needs of students in higher education, there has been little initiative taken over the last three years by the Scottish Government. Lobbying the UK Government to extend childcare voucher provision is hardly a radical strategy.

Referring to the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission submission to the Parliament’s Preventative Spend Inquiry: “Employment, in most cases, will ensure people stay out of poverty, and is a critical route out of poverty. While Westminster controls welfare and policy there are many Scottish-controlled levers that enable people to remain in work. Education and training schemes, childcare, social care and community transport schemes all enable people to participate in employment. …Allowing people to remain independent is essential to personal well-being, ensures they remain economically active in their community both in terms of tax-paid and income spent, and for most (not all) it will keep them out of poverty.” What we’ve been doing for 50 years hasn’t worked – it’s time to test out those policies argued for by trade union women in Perth, in Dumfries, in Dunfermline, in Kirkcaldy, in workplaces and communities up and down the country. As the TGWU said in 1965:

“These measures would save children’s lives and help to bring the full emancipation of women, with consequent economic benefits to the country”