MPs have issued a fresh plea to Rishi Sunak to offer more financial support to the struggling childcare sector after he failed to take action in Wednesday’s summer statement.
The chancellor declined to offer more financial help to nurseries and other providers in his “plan for jobs”, despite being urged to do so by business groups including the Institute of Directors, and the Conservative chairs of the equalities, education and liaison parliamentary committees.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy, who challenged Sunak on the issue, said: “Childcare is an infrastructure issue. If we don’t get this right, nurseries and other early years providers will close, and people will have to take their kids to work; as we have seen over recent months, that does not make for a productive workforce.”
She added: “Two-thirds of women who want to return to work in the next couple of months cannot because they cannot get any [childcare].”
The National Day Nurseries Association has warned that 71% of its members expect to operate at a loss between now and September, and a further 23% to just break even. It is calling for a “recovery and transformation fund” to help providers stay afloat, and adjust to the requirements of keeping children safe.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, who chairs the education committee, said: “I just think the government needs to set out a long-term plan for childcare and nurseries, to make sure they have financial stability for the future, both in terms of private provision, and our incredibly successful maintained nurseries. They need to be absolutely clear that their future is secure.”
Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society warned that progress on closing the gender gap could be reversed if women were unable to return to work because there is no childcare in place. “They’re just not getting it,” she said of the government.
Sunak was pressed on the issue during Wednesday’s debate by the former Conservative minister Steve Brine, who urged the chancellor to spend 15 minutes hearing about the pressures facing the sector.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs is fantastic and right, but it has to be backed by childcare that actually exists,” Brine said.
Sunak replied by pointing out that nurseries could benefit from the business rates relief that was part of his economic rescue package – and that the government has continued to fund early years places.
But Smethers pointed out that many nurseries are heavily reliant on parental contributions, which fell off a cliff when they were forced to close to all but essential workers in March, and have only gradually begun to resume.
“There’s nothing in anything the chancellor’s done to bridge that gap – they’re just not strong enough businesses,” she said.
Less than a quarter of children have returned to early years settings, according to official figures, and providers are having to reduce numbers to allow them to comply with Covid-secure guidelines.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow equalities minister, called on Sunak to carry out a gender impact assessment of the policies announced in Wednesday’s statement.
“Given the government has completely failed to carry out, let alone publish, any equality impact assessment of the summer statement, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it hasn’t occurred to the chancellor to provide even a scintilla of additional support for people carrying the huge additional weight of child care.
“But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing: just last month the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers are more likely to have had their careers disrupted, whilst still bearing most of the additional childcare.”