In the summer of 1947, 35 mothers locked themselves into a Yorkshire children’s centre to protest against its closure. The government drastically scaled back after expanding nursery provisions to enable women to join the war. In four years, around 500 council-run nurseries were shut. Then, as now, women knew what their situation meant for their prospects. They were recast in their traditional role as carers and lost financial independence.
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Childcare has remained one of the gaps in the welfare state ever since. While the UK is relatively generous towards new mothers, with maternity leave and benefits that compare favourably with other countries, it has been less good at providing affordable, high-quality childcare. This puts women at a disadvantage in the labour market and is one of the reasons why, despite having some of the highest rates of employment in Europe, we also have some of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce.
The current system is far from perfect, but it is an improvement from what came before. In 1998, New Labour introduced a network of Children’s Centres, providing free or heavily subsidised childcare, health visitor services and other support for families with young children. These were a lifeline for many low-income families, helping to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
But since 2010, the Tories have been systematically dismantling this safety net. Funding for Children’s Centres has been cut by 40%, leading to the closure of nearly 600 centres across the country. The number of health visitors has fallen by a fifth, and other services have been scaled back. As a result, families are struggling to get the help they need.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds has announced a new childcare policy that will worsen the situation. Under the new rules, which come into effect in September, working parents can only claim 30 hours of free childcare per week if they earn less than £100,000 a year. This is a reduction from the current threshold of £150,000.
The government says this will save money and focus resources on those who need it most. But many families will be worse off as a result. Childcare is already one of the biggest expenses for families with young children, increasing the financial burden.
It is also likely to hit women hardest. Women are more likely to work part-time or in low-paid jobs and shoulder most childcare responsibilities. By making it harder for them to access affordable childcare, the government is effectively making it harder for them to work. This will hurt their own lives and the economy as a whole.
The government’s childcare policy is short-sighted and misguided. It will make it harder for parents to work and force many women out of the labour market altogether. This is bad for families, bad for the economy, and bad for society as a whole.
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