For new parents, the decision about when and how to return to work is one of the biggest dilemmas they will face.
On the one hand, parents instinctively want to look after their children themselves, so many will be familiar with the sense of heartache they feel when they drop their child off at playgroup or nursery for the first time. Many will also have grappled with the worry as to whether their son or daughter will get the same level of care and attention that they would receive at home. On the other hand, many parents - particularly in London - have little choice; they need to return to work so that they can provide a reasonable standard of living for their family in London.
For parents, striking the balance between work and childcare is therefore an emotional and financial tug of war. And in London, the challenges facing parents often feel insurmountable.
I recently chaired a roundtable discussion with professionals from across the childcare industry to discuss the issues parents face and what local, national and London government can do to help alleviate the pressures on families. Our discussion tackled a number of issues with particular focus on women, traditionally the main providers of childcare.
Firstly, parents need greater flexibility in the workplace, with the ability to align work commitments with childcare commitments.
But even if employers are exemplary in their approach to flexible working, the lack of affordable childcare in London will be the biggest problem facing families. Last year the London Assembly's former Health and Public Services Committee published the report 'Tackling childcare affordability', which found that childcare costs in London are up to a third higher than elsewhere in the UK - an average of £119 a week for a child under two years old compared to £90 elsewhere.
This has added to the cost of living crisis in London, where on average families pay more for their travel, housing and childcare than elsewhere in the UK. London parents also face more challenges than parents in other regions because of longer working hours, lengthy commutes and being less likely to have family close by to pitch in and help look after children. The situation is compounded by local authority budget cuts which mean the closure of affordable nurseries at Children's Centres in some areas.
However, there's no extra financial help to meet these costs. There is a strong case for reflecting the higher costs of childcare in London through an extra weighting for things such as the funding for free nursery care, tax credits and the upcoming tax-free childcare initiative. This is one thing the Government could do today to immediately help ease the cost of living crisis affecting parents.
Yet, despite the bigger problems that parents face in London, the Mayor has actively made things harder them.
In March 2005, the former Mayor and then government provided £33 million of funding towards innovative methods for delivering affordable childcare in the capital. The pilot projects aimed to reduce the cost of full day-care and to encourage providers to offer more flexible and part-time care. Upon election in 2008, Boris Johnson cancelled this project and today he still has no specific set of policies on childcare, even rejecting calls for early education and childcare to be included in his Education Enquiry.
Childcare professionals know that for many parents, the cost of childcare is so high that they will never go back to work because it simply does not pay for them to do so. The London Assembly's report stated that 63% of working parents said the cost of childcare had affected their decision about whether or not to work, and 73% said it affected how many hours they worked.
I fully support recent calls for a "legal guarantee" of childcare, which would see free childcare increase from its current 15 hours to 25 hours. This would mean childcare includes breakfast clubs and afterschool clubs from 8am to 6pm at primary schools, the times when parents are travelling to and from work.
For all of the Coalition Government's pledges to get parents off benefits and into work, the specific issues parents face in London around childcare seem to have been ignored. Working parents need more than lip-service from the Mayor and the Government.