27 Nov 2021

Childcare must be at the centre of our economy

POLITICAL PLATFORM: Foyle SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin says a plan must be in place to allow mothers to return to work as the Coronavirus lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Mothers are one and a half times’ more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 crisis. This is because more of the jobs that women typically do have been hit by the economic fall-out – these include retail, hotels, restaurants, cafes, hairdressing, arts and leisure.

Even where the jobs are likely to come back, it will be more difficult for women to return to work. Childcare businesses have mostly closed down. Family members may be unable to provide support where older relatives are fearful of catching Covid-19, or have been told to protect themselves in isolation at home.

As we look to the future, the provision of affordable childcare has to be much more of a priority than it has been in the past. This is necessary both in terms of equality and fairness, but also because working women help drive the economy.

This is especially true in Derry and much of Northern Ireland, where family incomes have traditionally been very dependent on women’s wages. And let us be blunt, we have a particular challenge in our area. A few days ago I read a report which found that 44% of new births in the city are to lone parent households. Those lone parents need childcare support for the sake of their children and themselves, helping them to earn good incomes.

In Derry we have a very high rate of economic inactivity – it is one of the highest rates anywhere in Ireland or the UK. The causes of this include ill health and disability, but it also a result of lone parents being locked out of the labour market because of the shortage of childcare. This can lead to permanent exclusion from well paid work if parents are unable to gain the skills that employers value.

It is not just the shortage of childcare that is the problem, it is also the cost. There are not enough places and the cost per child can mean that it is not financially worth going to work. This is especially the case for parents with more than one child. There can also be problems with arranging relationships and travel between schools and childcare when a child begins attending school.

A new report from Ireland’s Nevin Economic Research Institute has called on the NI Executive to urgently reopen childcare alongside the rest of the economy. Without that happening, many mothers will be unable to return to work, creating new barriers to women’s employment.

This problem could damage the prospect for women in employment for many years. Employers could also do more by assisting staff to return to work by offering greater flexibility in working hours. This will help families balance parenting responsibilities between mothers and fathers.

Progress, though, rests to a large extent on increasing the provision of childcare and reducing its cost. Schools that provide breakfast and after school clubs have helped with this, but it will be many months before these become available again.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has correctly said that improving access to affordable childcare is essential to increase female participation in the labour market. Good childcare policy is good economic policy as it drives our society's productivity and wealth, as well as increasing families’ incomes – giving children the best possible start in life.

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