Free childcare plan a ‘big win’ for women but campaigners warn more money is needed

Campaigners have raised concerns that the government has not pledged enough money to properly implement the new childcare policy unveiled in the Spring Budget.

Jeremy Hunt announced 30 hours of free childcare for all under-fives from the point at which maternity care ends for those who are eligible.

One mother said the move would give her “freedom” while others warned the policy would not help everyone and questioned if there were enough services to meet demand.

Joeli Brearley, chief executive of Pregnant Then Screwed, a leading campaign group, said the announcement demonstrated how much childcare has climbed the political agenda.

But she also raised concerns the “money pledged is not enough to reduce costs for parents sustainably”.

She added: “Without a workforce plan providers will continue to be forced to close, and increasing ratios [of workers to children] will be detrimental to staff retention, what they need is better pay which will come from significant investment into the sector and into the roll-out of the free hours scheme.

“The Confederation of British Industry estimates that to do what the government is planning costs £8.9 billion not £4 billion, so we need to see the detail as to how this money is being distributed and we need to know that the government is investing in these new schemes based on the actual cost to deliver them.”

Ms Brearly said while “free childcare from nine months is brilliant”, this could only be done if there was enough childcare available.

The campaigner said: ”Just three years ago, we would talk to ministers about childcare and they would look at us like we were speaking Klingon. It was of no interest to those in power.

“To go from there to childcare being the main event in the Spring Budget shows the power of collective action and we are elated to hear that the childcare sector will now receive a significant investment.

While many have praised the childcare support, not everyone is eligible (Getty/iStock)
While many have praised the childcare support, not everyone is eligible (Getty/iStock)

“Parents of young children felt ignored, but this will restore their faith in democracy so we thank ministers for hearing our cry and bridging the gap for mothers from the end of maternity leave so that they are supported to be able to work.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) found the UK had one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. While troubling research carried out by Pregnant then Screwed last year found six in 10 women who have had an abortion say the cost of childcare in the UK put them off pregnancy.

Lucie Driver, who has an eight-month-old daughter called Luna, told The Independent the childcare announcement would grant her “freedom”.

The 26-year-old, who lives in Penistone in Sheffield, added: “That’s the only way I can describe it. Free to make a choice and not having that choice taken away or even there in the first place.

“Without choice, we as human beings feel lost or stuck. I have been suffering postpartum depression since Luna was born and with this comes extreme anxiety. For the past eight months that should have been an enjoyable time in our lives, I’ve been constantly looking for jobs and worrying about what will happen when my maternity leave is up.”

Ms Driver, who previously worked as a supervisor in a coffee shop, said she has felt like there is a “ticking time bomb and you have to outrun it”.

She added: “When left with the thought of childcare being so expensive you’re left with dread, sleepless nights, thoughts that are horrific on how you will survive on one person’s pay - especially in the current state of the country. With this news, I will now be able to help financially contribute to our lives.”

But another mother-of-three, who did not want her name used, told The Independent the announcement would not help her or other women who cannot work due to ill health, as claimants need to work a minimum of 16 hours a week to qualify.

“I am not able to access specialist mental health care due to not having childcare and not able to interview to get a job due to the same reason,” the woman, who is classed as severely disabled as a result of mental health problems said.

“My family are not local and I get no support in order to get a job. By the time I can access the 15 hours free childcare, I will have been out of work for four years.”