Childcare in Northern Ireland is in crisis. Costs here are the second highest in Europe, there are not enough places to cope with demand and one third of local parents say that childcare costs are their largest monthly outgoing, exceeding their rent or mortgage.
Parents are having to cut back on their hours, leave their jobs or make ad hoc and short-term arrangements.
And the response from the DUP/ Sinn Fein led Executive? Almost ten years after it first started to discuss a Childcare Strategy, unbelievably, it is still at the consultation stage.
‘Towards a Childcare Strategy’ was first drafted in 2012. The consultation period ended a year later in December 2013.
The Programme for Government (2011-2015) committed the Executive to publish and implement a childcare strategy with key actions to provide integrated and affordable childcare. That consultation ended in November 2015.
Then, the New Decade, New Approach agreement committed the Executive to publish the strategy and to “deliver extended, affordable and high-quality provision of early education and care initiatives for families with children aged 3-4”.
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen now promises to finally deliver the strategy, but, depressingly, says that this will involve re-engaging with key stakeholders on the objectives and priorities, feasibility testing and a public consultation. Don’t hold your breath.
Socialist countries, like the German Democratic Republic, pioneered comprehensive childcare schemes as long ago as the 1940s and 50s. Other countries are now belatedly addressing their childcare responsibiities.
Parents in England and Scotland can access 30 hours of free childcare during term time.
In Finland every child under the age of seven has the right to childcare and pre-school by law,
Sweden spends more money on its pre-school budget than it does on its defence budget. Each child is guaranteed a place at a public pre-school.
Nurseries in France are free and children aged from three upwards can attend
Since 2013 every child over the age of one in Germany has a legal right to a place in a public childcare facility.
The lack of available places and the cost of childcare remain major factors in discouraging women, in particular, from participating in the workforce. Many have no choice but to work reduced hours, enter casual employment or give up work altogether.
If women are to achieve equality in the workplace then child care must be a priority
In the absence of publicly run nurseries, the government’s go-to solution is to use tax-payers’ money as a subsidy to private nurseries through working tax credits, vouchers and a myriad of complex and complicated funding schemes riddled with caveats, exceptions and exclusion clauses. It doesn’t even kick the problem further down the road. The crisis remains and is getting worse.
Is it really such an earth-shattering demand to call for fully publicly funded, affordable, flexible nursery and childcare services?
If we are serious about gender equality, developing the economy, maximising the input of women and implementing a post covid revival plan then we must ensure that a flexible childcare network is available from birth and includes pre and after-school, and holiday care.
If we are serious about a first-class childcare strategy then we must guarantee quality of care through ensuring that all those working in the childcare sector are fully qualified, have training and development opportunities, a career path and are paid a real living wage.
And while we are at it, why should we not consider childcare as the major investment in the future that it unquestionably is? Why should we not rank it alongside other major social policy initiatives and make it free at the point of delivery?
Too often, critics dismiss socialists and socialism as always wanting something for nothing. Of course, a free at the point of use childcare system would cost money and it should be paid for.
We could start with collecting the billions of pounds of unpaid taxes, raising corporation tax in recognition of the benefits employers will reap from future generations or we could stop waging wars around the world. The estimated £40 billion plus spent on the war in Afghanistan would be a good start and a much better use of public money.