Parents have nothing to thank Rishi Sunak for today

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Take a big swig of the cheap rosé Rishi Sunak has promised, ladies, because you’re going to need it to swallow all the nonsense served up in the chancellor’s latest budget. This prime minister-in-waiting desperately wants to prove his credentials as a man who understands what the people need to achieve their own ambitions, that he knows “the sacrifices we’re prepared to make”, as he puts it. And yet, once again, he has shown he either knows or cares nothing about the extreme economic pressures on women, and in particular working mothers, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Sacrifices we are expected to make include our careers and, for the poorest, our life chances – and those of our children too.

Sunak describes in earnest tones the need for his government to “invest in our economic infrastructure”, but then goes on to list those spending priorities as follows: roads, railways, broadband and mobile networks. What about childcare? Childcare is a form of infrastructure, a basic service on which the functioning of the entire economy depends. The government knows that; it’s why the children of public sector workers were still allowed a school place at the height of the pandemic. Without childcare, the wheels start falling off. So why is it confined to another part of the budget speech, the bit about family life? It’s no less significant politically, of course, but it speaks volumes about the diminishing value placed on childcare inside the Treasury.

The soundbites trailed in the week before today’s Budget speech spoke of reinvestment in childcare. Campaigners including the Women’s Budget Group were right to point out that anything less than universal free childcare will inevitably fall short of the provision required to help all women meet their economic potential. That’s a wish I share, but it’s a fantasy of course, particularly with this government in situ. And yet the promises that followed today, when unpicked, still manage to come to less than the sum of their parts.

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Let’s start with the funding of new family hubs – centres at which multiple public services with be located, providing access to good early years support and childcare alongside breastfeeding support, benefits advice, and mental health services. There will be 75 of them, costing £500m. They sound a lot like something else: sure start children’s centres, 1,000 of which have been closed in the decade since the Conservatives came to power. The 75 new centres may each be bigger in size and scope but, crucially, with so few they are no longer located in every community. Women who need face-to-face, peer-led breastfeeding support are usually in the first eight to 12 weeks post-partum. They’re not up to travelling 20 miles to find it. How many opportunities to pick up post-natal mental health issues are lost due to distances? And that’s only one small service these centres once provided.

Sunak is right that the evidence is present and compelling that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can dictate their future chances – their emotional stability, educational attainment, and economic prospects as adults are all heavily influenced before they can read a single word. That’s why this early intervention matters so much. His government, in recreating a fraction of the support families once had, is making a devastating admission of failure to a whole generation of young children born in the last decade – including both of mine. This is what women mean when they say the personal is political.

Then we come to the cost of childcare. In some areas of the country now, three working days of paid childcare costs more than the average mortgage. In a nation where our housing is among the most unaffordable in the OECD, that’s a double mortgage or rent to pay for any family who wants or needs both parents to work before the youngest child turns three years old.

An investment in training for the early years workforce is of course welcome. And a better-trained workforce should of course be paid better too. Yet finding just £170m to pay more to childcare providers won’t get us out of the childcare trap. This sum is too small. It will only help support nurseries and pre-schools in areas where there are sufficient families with significant enough incomes to top up around the 15 or 30 free hours a week provided by the government (and where those incomes are large enough to swallow the rising cost of paid hours as a result of a higher minimum wage for nursery workers).

Even in the most well-off regions, some women will drop out of the workforce as a result of those marginal increases to wraparound hours. In the poorest, nurseries will become uneconomic businesses and will simply close. The end result: more women out of work and, by the government’s definition, economically inactive. (Not a definition I would use, as the business of caring for and raising the next generation is the most important economic work any adult does.)

Changes to universal credit – again welcome, and welcomed by the opposition too – are equally insufficient to make a difference to women’s economic opportunities. The rise in the minimum wage will indeed benefit women in work, as women are most likely to be employed in roles paying the legal minimum. These changes both make work pay, but you can’t work if you can’t find childcare.

Women have already borne the brunt of the care costs of the pandemic. They’re more likely to have worked in jobs, such as retail or catering, which were lost during the height of the Covid outbreak. They’ve been made redundant because the struggle to homeschool while working full-time was too much to ask of any parent or employee. In just two years, they’ve seen their already shrinking chances start to vanish. The chancellor is varnishing his promises to families – but under the gloss, the veneer is already chipping.

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