What can Labour nationally learn from Labour councils about creating opportunities for mothers by making childcare more affordable and stimulating a quality part-time and flexible labour market?
Labour needs to have a plan to create jobs and invest in growth. We need a strong, skilled and diverse workforce ready for the challenges of the future.
This is the approach we have adopted in Labour-run Camden. Working with key partners across the borough, including public service providers, businesses and charities, we are breaking down local barriers to jobs and growth.
In May I wrote on these pages about Camden’s Equality Taskforce, which was commissioned to explore the structural and systemic reasons for inequality in the borough and to recommend solutions. The taskforce’s final report explicitly highlighted the low rates of maternal employment in London as a key concern, caused by a lack of quality flexible or part-time jobs and the high costs of childcare.
This government seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for affordable childcare to be provided, or for families to afford it. Our evidence demonstrates just how difficult it is for families to pay for childcare, particularly in London. Government policies on the economy and on welfare benefits for families in work are making it much harder for families to afford decent childcare. Cuts to town hall budgets can mean cuts to childcare.
Good quality, properly rewarded, flexible and part-time jobs play a significant role in boosting economic growth, opening up opportunities to parents, mainly mothers, who are unable to work full time as they care for their young children.
There is an increasing expectation from employers that employees will be flexible, often to the detriment of their employees. We see this, for example, in the growing use of zero-hours contracts. Employers must now begin to extend flexibility into their recruitment practices; creating more job opportunities such as part-time flexitime, or job-sharing as we are doing in Camden, and ensuring the most senior roles are also available as flexible opportunities. Often mothers have to return to lower-skilled, less demanding work than prior to having their children, because flexibility only goes so far up the career ladder. This must change.
Another boost to job creation and growth lies in the provision of affordable high-quality childcare. High quality childcare is hugely important in improving our children’s life chances, according to evidence.
An increase in universal availability of high-quality childcare would, of course, provide a significant boost to the economy. Parents who currently stay at home to care for their children would be able to work. This would increase family income, improve living standards and reduce dependence on benefits. We have achieved this in Camden by providing all three- and four-year-olds with 25 hours of free care a week, not the statutory 15.
Local authorities have a distinctive role. Labour is in control of council budgets up and down the country and continue to demonstrate a responsible, innovative approach to managing the funds we have to create the best in public service. With more powers we could achieve so much more. With greater control over our budgets and local powers, for example, a tourist tax on hotels could bring in millions to help fund schemes like this. Making local government responsible for local employment would mean a proper tailored service that fitted local challenges. Where job centres are cumbersome and outdated, we can be responsive and decisive. Many councils are already doing this.
The economic case for these changes and policies is clear. We now need a clear voice from local government to showcase this work and these ideas within the party to ensure the front bench are using and promoting the best we have to offer.
Despite reduced funding, Camden has now prioritised spending on childcare as an essential part of our investment agenda. We have increased the 15-hour free childcare entitlement to 25-hours a week, for at least the next two academic years. Childcare costs in London are the highest in the country. In addition to supporting Camden’s poorest families, this will also help those parents who are on middle-incomes and have lost their child benefit.
But much more needs to be done. Labour councils must work together to lobby both the present government and the next Labour government for changes in national policy to allow councils to help local people in to work.
Introducing measures such as extending free childcare for preschool children to 25 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, with extra hours charged at £1 an hour would drive growth by unblocking barriers to work.
We’re already pushing the boundaries in Camden. As Labour is in town halls up and down the country where we are in power, Labour’s frontbench should look to the councils we lead for inspiration and innovation for a platform to govern nationally after 2015.
Sarah Hayward is leader of Camden council. She tweets @Sarah_Hayward and is speaking at next week’s Winning With Women conference on Care crunch: Can Labour win the argument on childcare and social care? Sign up for your ticket here.
Camden council will be hosting a childcare and employment conference on 13 September to encourage local employers to support parents into work
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