In his first speech of 2023, the prime minister aired his ambitions to “build a better future for our children and grandchildren” – but there was next to no acknowledgement of the UK’s crumbling childcare sector. That is, until a member of the press asked about it.
“The government and I are completely committed to ensuring good availability and affordability and flexibility of childcare,” the prime minister responded.
“There’s a consultation that is out at the moment, and we’re in the process of considering – about some reforms – and it wouldn’t be right for me to comment on that now.
Sunak added: “But the fact I’ve spent time talking about family hopefully gives you and everyone some confidence that it is important to me and we want to make sure we support families in all their forms, to have happy and fulfilling lives, that are filled with love and nurturing for their children in the same way that I was fortunate to benefit from.”
In this, his first major domestic speech as prime minister, Sunak unveiled five promises he will focus on before the next election: halving inflation in 2023, growing the economy, bringing down the national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping small boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel from France.
But bar a passing reference to family hubs, Sunak made no mention of childcare reforms or greater support for the many parents who are weighed down by some of the world’s most expensive childcare costs.
And those working in the sector were left baffled by the lack of detail.
There have been warnings for a number of years that the sector is at breaking point – and early years providers are calling for the government to tackle the problem head on.
Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, told HuffPost UK: “How can it be that at a time when thousands of early years providers are closing every year, staff are leaving the sector in droves and parents are facing crippling costs, the prime minister gives a key speech about priorities for the upcoming year and doesn’t even mention the early years beyond a passing reference to family hubs?”
Leitch pointed out that one of the government’s stated aims is to encourage more people back into work to help the economy.
“Perhaps tackling our broken early years system and ensuring that mothers aren’t priced out of the workforce as a result of spiralling early years costs might be a good place to start,” he said.
“And if a quality education is so important, why not invest adequately in the sector that supports children’s learning during their most critical period of development?”
Those working in childcare know the government has a number of pressing priorities at the moment, Leitch said, but a functioning childcare and early education system is, in his words, “just as much a part of our social infrastructure as the railways and the NHS”.
Lauren Fabianski, head of campaigns and communication at Pregnant Then Screwed, welcomed the prime minister’s apparent commitment to ensuring good availability, affordability and flexibility of childcare – but said his words must be followed by actions.
“Just weeks ago, it was recognised in parliament that childcare is essential infrastructure – just like roads, just like housing and just like medical care, and yet over two thirds of families in the UK currently pay more for their childcare than they do for their mortgage,” Fabianski said.
The increasing cost of childcare has meant that many people cannot afford to work, she said, pointing out that 84% of the 1.75 million people who have given up work to care for their family are women.
“What we need now is commitment and action. We welcome the consultation into the sector but following this, we need to see urgent investment into families and the vital infrastructure that enables parents to work and to survive.”
The childcare consultation Sunak referenced on Wednesday comes after former prime minister Liz Truss proposed plans to scrap mandatory staff-child ratios in childcare settings.
At present, one staff member can supervise eight children aged three and over, and four children aged two and under. The idea was that scrapping these mandatory ratios would reduce childcare costs.
However some parents were concerned it would also result in safety issues as staff would end up caring for more kids.
Another proposal suggested was to extend free childcare support for toddlers to 50 hours a week.
Truss has reportedly urged Sunak not to scrap her suggested reforms. A source close to her told the Times: “Excessive bureaucracy is making childcare in England increasingly unaffordable for many parents. The system needs to be reformed in order to boost growth and opportunity. Junking Liz’s plans for this critical policy area seems economically and politically counterproductive.”
A number of Conservative backbenchers have also expressed concern that Sunak does not appear to be giving childcare enough of a priority in his agenda, according to the Guardian.
There are glimmers of hope. Sunak has now said publicly that he is committed to ensuring good availability and affordability of childcare. Reports also suggest he’s considering extending the free 30 hours for childcare to all parents – not just those who are eligible because they’re on benefits.
It’s a start. But it’s clear lots more needs to be done.