Labour in a bind over much-needed childcare reform | Labour


In a report, the Fawcett Society has drawn a conclusion that young parents are already familiar with: childcare in England is not working.

Compared with systems in Ireland, Estonia, France, Canada and Australia – all countries that have recently carried out or initiated major reforms – the English system is expensive, underfunded and unambitious.

Parents join lengthy waiting lists for nurseries. They have to fork out astronomical sums for basic childcare so they can return to work. Faced with this choice, many young mothers decide to drop out of the workforce to look after their children and avoid paying two-thirds of their salary for someone else to do so.

Labour and the Conservatives have cottoned on to the fact that childcare reform promises to boost the economy and the political fortunes of the party that achieves it. That has made childcare a key political battleground at the next election.

Since being appointed shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson has made this issue her number one priority. In a landmark speech in March last year, she promised to rip up the system in England, which she said was failing parents. Labour has asked David Bell, a former Ofsted chief and permanent secretary of the Department for Education, to carry out an in-depth review of the early years system.

Weeks after Phillipson’s speech, the government stole a march by announcing billions to extend childcare entitlements in its March 2023 budget. Starting this month, working parents of two-year-olds can claim 15 hours a week of free childcare during term time. This will apply to parents of nine-month-olds from September 2024 and increase to 30 hours a week from September 2025.

Experts have said this is a sticking-plaster solution, pumping money into a system that is struggling to cope with existing demand. Nurseries say they do not have the capacity to deliver the extra spaces needed.

Nonetheless, Labour is in a political bind. The party is awaiting the results of Bell’s review before deciding on childcare plan – but the Conservatives have already set out their policy. As a result, shadow ministers in broadcast studios are pelted with questions about whether they would keep the entitlements offered to parents by this government.

After some resistance, Labour has promised to honour the promised entitlements. Phillipson’s team insists the party is still is committed to root-and-branch reform of the system and will set out its plan after Bell’s review concludes.

But in the absence of any detail or even a timeline for the review’s conclusions, experts are concerned that reform will be kicked into the long grass. The fact that overhauling childcare would be expensive and Labour is keen to demonstrate its commitment to fiscal restraint makes it all the more difficult.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, promised last month that a Labour government would aim to borrow only to invest, echoing the fiscal rules of the former Labour chancellor Gordon Brown. She may well prove reluctant to commit Labour to spending any large sum on childcare reform in the run-up to the election.

“Women’s votes are essential to winning the next election, so we’re not surprised to see Labour commit to the entitlements that the government has set out, but alongside this we simply can’t afford for them not to undertake the wider reforms that are so badly needed,” said Alesha De-Freitas, the head of policy for the Fawcett Society. “We need to hear the party commit to reform as we approach an election.”

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