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Mother knows best: are we overlooking the value of stay-at-home mums?

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

7 min read

The government is planning to make childcare more affordable for parents of younger children – but some MPs aren’t happy. Are we overlooking the value of stay-at-home mums? Sienna Rodgers reports

Jeremy Hunt’s expansion of childcare in this year’s Budget was a deft piece of political thievery, robbing Labour of what it hoped would be a major election offer. Both main parties are now committed to economically incentivising mothers to return to work as soon as paid maternity leave ends. But does their desire to address Britain’s labour shortage by coaxing parents back into work early mean those who would prefer to stay at home risk being forgotten?

Many parents breathed a sigh of relief when Rishi Sunak announced in March that he would oversee a “revolution in childcare support”. Average nursery bills increased by 44 per cent between 2010 and 2021, according to the Trades Union Congress. One in four parents told charity Pregnant Then Screwed this year that childcare costs make up over 75 per cent of their take-home pay.

“It seems crazy to me that the government should treat mothers out of the workplace in the same way as they treat anybody else out of work”

The state currently provides funding for 30 hours of childcare per week during term-time – but this is available only for children aged three to four years. That will soon change: the scheme is being expanded incrementally, until by September 2025 the 30 hours offer will be accessible to all eligible parents of children from nine months old to four.

“One of the main cost of living pressures families are facing at the moment is the cost of childcare. That’s one big part of why we’re doing this expansion,” children’s minister David Johnston tells The House. “The second part is that, obviously, the early years – nought to five years – are really crucial for a child’s development,” he adds. “The third is that this is also important for the economy.”

The Confederation of British Industry led the campaign for the expansion on the basis it would boost GDP by up to £4.9bn and increase tax revenues by up to £9.6bn by 2027, not including the added potential impact of working mothers increasing their hours. With the policy costing approximately £4.1bn by 2027-28 according to the government, the numbers appear to add up favourably.

Some of Johnston’s colleagues are unhappy, however. “It seems crazy to me that the government should treat mothers out of the workplace in the same way as they treat anybody else out of work,” says Miriam Cates, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. “There’s a biological reason why you feel like you want to spend as much time as you can with your child.”

“There are some mothers who can’t get wait to get back to work – that’s fine, that absolutely should be their choice. But all the polling suggests mothers of under fours generally want to work fewer hours when their children are small,” Cates adds. In a survey of 2,500 respondents conducted by Public First for the Centre for Social Justice, 78 per cent of parents with young children said they would like to spend more time with them.

Is the planned childcare boost, then, a fundamentally unconservative policy? There seems to be tension between economy-focused Conservatives like Sunak, who use GDP and labour market figures to measure the country’s success, and Conservatives who reject “the cult of GDP” and prioritise traditional values. (Cates would argue, though, that even when looking solely at the economy it is not straight-forward, as GDP per capita would reflect that many mothers return to low-wage, part-time jobs.)

The government is proposing to bring funded childcare entitlement down to meet the end of maternity leave pay. This is financially helpful but may be emotionally difficult. At nine months, babies cannot talk, cannot usually walk, and milk is still their main source of nutrition. A breastfeeding mother, for example, may struggle and be forced to pump at work or – as I have on my recent return from maternity leave – introduce formula.

“I remember what my children were like at nine months. The idea that the only way that my family could get support would be to leave them for 30 hours a week in institutional childcare, to have no choice in doing that, would be extraordinarily painful,” says Cates.

Andrea Leadsom, MP for South Northamptonshire and the government’s early years adviser, has similar reflections. “I’ve got three kids. I always went back to work after about three months with each of my children, because then that was required. I found that absolute torture,” she recalls.

“This is not just about babysitting, this is also about early education, therefore we need quality”

Alternatives to the childcare-maximising approach have been put forward. Cates would like to see Child Benefit increased, the limits on it scrapped, and parents able to choose to be taxed jointly (factoring in how £50,000 is a very different income for a single person than for a single-earner family with children). She also endorses legislating to guarantee mothers a right to return to their job at the same level after three or even five years.

Along with MP Danny Kruger, with whom she co-founded the New Conservatives parliamentary group, Cates has suggested direct funding should be replaced by “family budgets”. Parents would be able to choose how to spend the money – paying formal care providers, family members or themselves.

The plan has the backing of centre-right think tank the Centre for Social Justice, and Liz Truss reportedly considered it while occupying No 10 last year. But this government is not keen. “I have heard this idea pushed by some of our colleagues. We have opted to take a different approach that we feel matches what most parents are saying to us,” children’s minister Johnston tells The House.

Leadsom’s early years work has highlighted the importance of the first 1,001 days – through pregnancy to age two – and regards bonding as key. “A childcare policy should focus on the needs of families. I don’t think it should be just focused on getting women into the workplace,” the former cabinet minister says. She recommends an attendance allowance for grandparents – a compromise between the focus on formal childcare and the rival “family budgets” solution.

As Johnston articulated, one of the government’s core objectives in formulating its childcare policy is to aid children’s development. This is a bone of contention: while some emphasise the value of financially enabling family members who want to stay at home, others argue professionals are best-placed to deliver high-quality care.

“This is not just about babysitting, this is also about early education, therefore we need quality,” Women’s Budget Group director Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson says. She does not believe the childcare plan is viable in its present form due to workforce problems, but her objections are practical, not ideological. Instead of “family budgets”, Stephenson favours increased and extended paid leave, more flexible working, and secure part-time work.

The Labour Party similarly focuses on closing the attainment gap via state-approved childcare. “We’re interested in how we deliver a childcare system that works for every family from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school,” shadow children’s minister Helen Hayes tells The House. She confirms that Labour in government would “stick to the existing spending parameters” set by Sunak for childcare funding.

Figures on the left are less concerned with parental choice and typically more interested in fighting the perception that women are natural caregivers. And in the manner of Sure Start – a tenet of faith for representatives across all wings of Labour – most crucial for them is standardising the quality of care received by children across income groups. The need for the party of the left to prove itself on the economy also means it is reluctant to veer away from upholding simple GDP as the ultimate arbiter of success.

Fortunately for mothers who would prefer to work, reform to reduce the cost of formal childcare is definitely coming. But for mothers whose preferred role in the economy is caring for their children, the political consensus at the top of both main parties is not – for the moment – in their favour.

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