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25 June 2019

The View from the Chair, Tina McKenzie - June 2019

The road to investing in childcare

While the contest to become the next Prime Minister has captured the public attention, with continued conversation about Brexit, borders and backstops, another issue that has started to become more prominent in the news agenda recently, is the issue of childcare. For families, childcare is a vital and often costly resource, in some cases the biggest outgoing that many households face. Recently released research by Employers for Childcare (EfC) reports that two in five households are using means other than income to pay for increasing childcare costs, for example methods such as credit cards and loans. While rising in prominence, childcare is not a new issue. The EfC Northern Ireland Childcare Survey has been ongoing for ten years, and as far back as 2010 FSB released a report on flexible working, which highlighted childcare as a key issue. 

Access to affordable childcare is absolutely key to reducing barriers for parents to play a full and valuable role in the economy. Northern Ireland has a higher rate of economic inactivity, those of working age not in work or seeking employment, than elsewhere in the UK. For women who are economically inactive, the most common factor behind their inactivity was ‘caring for the family or home’, with 35 percent citing this as the primary reason. Access to affordable childcare can help unlock the potential for more parents to enter employment or indeed start their own business. In Northern Ireland, the amount of new businesses created each year is only slightly more than the amount of businesses which cease trading, it is therefore vital that the option to start a company is available to as much of the population as possible. While some parents may prefer to spend less time working and more time with their children, it is important that we support parents so they have a choice.

In the last 12 months, FSB established a Childcare Special Interest Group, working with childcare providers, employers and parents to better understand the pressures which they face, and to see how the system can be improved to ensure the future sustainability of the sector. While developing a fully funded strategy may take some time, there are steps which can be taken in the interim. A departmental-led forum should be immediately established, bringing providers and representative groups together to regularly meet to discuss the most pressing problems and listen to the solutions they have. At present this is not happening, and while we recognise the lack of an Assembly can halt legislative decisions, this should not be an excuse to avoid engagement to help alleviate strain and to ensure government is ready to act quickly when devolution is restored.

The current structure of the talks process has a work stream dedicated to the Programme for Government for the incoming Executive. We understand that childcare is a key component of these discussions. Previously, a draft childcare strategy was ready for sign off before the collapse of the devolved institutions, however it must be reviewed to consider if it is still fit for purpose. It is crucial that childcare is suitably invested-in, and recognises the contribution of a range of providers who deliver quality childcare. The sector employs thousands of people directly in Northern Ireland and allows many more thousands of families to work. A mixed model of childcare delivery is crucial, with the public; private; and third sectors all having an important role to play. When we look at the landscape elsewhere, we see recognition of the importance of childcare demonstrated by the level of investment offered. In England, parents are able to access 30 free hours of childcare funded by government, while in RoI government has more than doubled investment in early learning and care since 2015. While no system is perfect, it is this level of ambition which we should aspire to locally. We also must consider how we can relieve the burdens on those who deliver childcare, perhaps by exploring the option of a rates exemption for childcare providers; something already delivered in Scotland and Wales, which would not only benefit providers but also the wider economy and our society.

We recognise that the public finances are not plentiful, with tough choices to be made about spending priorities. However, investing in childcare should be viewed no differently than investing in any other infrastructure, such as our roads; our schools; and our hospitals. Parents should have the freedom to strike the right balance between working and spending time at home, with the assurance that their children can enjoy quality childcare, which is accessible and affordable. The positive impact of a properly invested childcare strategy to our economy, and to families across Northern Ireland, cannot be overstated.