In his latest Budget statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced measures to provide parents with additional childcare. The 30 hours of free childcare currently available for 3-4 year-olds is set to be expanded to include infants aged nine months to two years.
Hunt claims that this will allow 60,000 parents to re-enter the workforce – those who are currently unable to work as a consequence of the astronomically high cost of childcare in Britain.
For many, therefore, returning to work makes little financial sense, given that most or all of any additional income would be spent paying for childcare.
The UK government spends a meagre 0.7% of GDP on funding childcare. If parents return to work before their child is three, they have to self-fund almost all the costs of childcare.
Under capitalism, it is the family unit that has to bear the responsibility and financial burden of raising the next generation of workers.
This is why the Tories are now proposing to step in and fund childcare places for the youngest children – due to desperation on the part of the bosses, not out of any sense of kindness or compassion towards working-class families.
Austerity and inflation
Many parents will no doubt welcome this announcement. But it will do little for the working conditions of nursery staff. Nor will it provide the necessary funding for additional nursery places.
Already, thanks to a decade of cuts to public spending, many nurseries are having to plug gaps (for funding free places for 3-4 year-olds) by increasing costs for younger children.
The Tories had previously promised to fully-fund this existing 30 hours of free childcare. In reality, however, the sector is underfunded by £1.7bn.
Inflation has further eroded nursery budgets. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that funding for childcare places in England will fall by 8% in real terms by 2024-25, adding to a 16% rise in costs.
Profits before parents
A further effect of these real-terms cuts is the impact on those who work in the sector.
84% of childcare provision for under fours is privatised – delivered by firms run for profit, not for the needs of staff or parents.
Despite the exorbitant fees paid by parents, low pay plagues the industry. This has led to a widespread recruitment and retention crisis, driving down working conditions for those left behind.
Accompanying the new childcare proposals, in this respect, are changes to regulations, lowering the minimum staff-to-child ratio required in nurseries from 1:4 to 1:5. This will add to the strain on overworked, underpaid nursery workers, raising concerns over safety.
Nurseries are reporting that they will simply have to close if the government doesn’t dramatically increase the amount they offer to cover funded places.
Many are already being forced to shut their doors. One Ofsted report found there was a net decrease of 4,000 creches and kindergartens in the last year – a six-year high. Only half of councils in England have enough available nursery places.
This is forcing more and more women out of work, in order to look after children, since childcare space often simply does not exist.
Hunt’s recent announcement, therefore, is merely a cynical, calculated plan, designed to benefit the Tories and the capitalists that they ultimately serve.
The maths is simple: the cost of providing additional childcare should be outweighed by the potential extra revenue that will be brought into the Exchequer, thanks to the expansion of the workforce, whose wages can be taxed. And similarly, the capitalist class will gain by having more workers to exploit.
This is what is really motivating the Tory government – the desire to boost the bosses’ profits, not to alleviate the pressures on working-class families.
But as the crisis of capitalism deepens, with billions more in austerity to come, it is the working class who will be made to pay, one way or another.
Marxists are in favour of providing free, universal, public childcare services, in order to reduce the load on working-class women; to bring women out of the confines of the home, and into the organised working class.
Under capitalism, working-class women experience a double burden: of wage labour in the workplace, and of domestic labour and caring responsibilities in the home.
At the same time, public services are being cut to pieces by austerity and inflation. And workers are being made to pick up the bill.
To see real emancipation for women, nothing short of a socialist planned economy – run by workers, for workers – can deliver the results.
This means bringing all nurseries under public ownership and workers’ control, and expropriating the bosses and billionaires in order to fully-fund services, staff, and safety.
Only then can nurseries be run without exploiting their workers, and can parents make their own decisions when it comes to caring for children and re-entering the world of work.
Only on this basis can genuinely-free, high-quality childcare be provided for all – catering for society’s needs, not the capitalists’ profits.