Voices: The Budget has finally released women from the chokehold of childcare costs

In a world where we celebrate women and lift each other up, we’re still fighting for equality and recognition. And today we’ve seen a huge boost for women released from the chokehold of childcare.

Jeremy Hunt’s Budget has given a desperately-needed boost to parents, promising up to 30 hours a week of free childcare for eligible households in England with children as young as nine months (instead of three and four-year-olds under the current policy) – that means 30 hours free childcare for all children under five.

It is part of a phased plan aimed at removing barriers to work, particularly for mothers. The first stage, for parents of up to two-year-olds, will come into effect in April 2024 – and it will be fully introduced by September 2025. The £4bn move will be worth up to £6,500 a year for working families. Hunt also pledged an expansion in wrap-around care at the start and finish of the school day for parents with older children and changes to staff-to-child ratios in England to expand supply of childcare.

There’s no question that we should be celebrating this commitment to helping parents, particularly working mothers. But it is a shame that the long-anticipated roll-out will take so long to come into force. The reforms are so large, Hunt said, that they need to be introduced in stages to ensure there is enough supply in the market, meaning they won’t come into full effect until September 2025. Sadly, that renders it useless to mothers like me, with a one-year-old; or those who are now pregnant.

But to say it is needed is an understatement: for too long, though to parent is to be gifted, the reality is that motherhood and fatherhood have not been equal. For years, mothers have been having to choose between their career and their children, while fathers make no such choice. (I realise this is a generalisation, but it’s certainly the majority.)

Most people don’t realise how expensive it is to have a child until they are expecting or preparing to go back to work. And I’m not talking about the cost of nappies, formula and clothes. I’m talking about where to keep your child while you’re out trying to make money to keep your bellies full and a roof over your heads.

A recent survey conducted by OECD found that in the UK parents have been paying 30 per cent of their income to childcare, more than any other European country apart from Slovakia and Switzerland. The majority of people do not have a live-in maid, au pair or nanny. Childminders are in decline, and then of course there are private nurseries. Besides looking after children, what do these all have in common? They’re extortionate.

Historically, the government has talked about not increasing childcare assistance because it’s already expensive to help those on universal credit, without considering the expense that falls to parents. Not any more.

The announcement in the Budget is welcome and will eventually boost many families, mine included, in a significant way (as long as all adults in the household are working at least 16 hours a week). Historically, families have been stuck in a doom loop of unaffordable fees until their child turns three years of age. That’s a vital chunk of time in which a parent – typically a mother – misses out on returning to work, thus perpetuating career disparity and the gender pay gap.

Typically, after maternity leave, the onus is on the mother to work part-time (or often not at all), to look after the children – simply because it’s cheaper. To put this into perspective: in my family we have been paying more for my one-year-old’s three days a week at nursery than we do for our mortgage.

I’m fortunate to have found a job that is flexible and that pays enough to make it all make sense – and a partner with whom I can share the financial burden. But my situation isn’t the norm. It’s incredibly hard to find. The truth is, parents (typically mothers) simply haven’t been able to work until their children are in full-time education. And the five years they’ve been out of work before that means they have a substantial gap in their CV, making them a less desirable hire than others.

Not to mention single parents: if a single parent is working and therefore not on universal credit, it is impossible to manage childcare costs. Until today’s announcement, too often I’ve heard the suggestion: “What about your parents or grandparents?” It’s not a bad one, but it’s an ill-thought-out one. For people like me, it’s just not been an option. And why should I, or anyone else, have to rely on family? It should be a treat to spend time with grandchildren – not a lifeline.

“Half of non-working mothers say they would prefer to work if they could arrange suitable childcare,” Hunt said. “For many women, a career break becomes a career end. It’s unfair, mainly to women.”

He’s right. It is just a shame that it has taken so long for the government to recognise the value of mothers going back to work, and to acknowledge the extortionate cost of childcare in this country.

Still, we can celebrate now. We can sigh with relief as we look forward to next April’s childcare changes, and all the while, in this month of celebrating women, celebrate those who make it all happen: mothers.