£8,000 a year – that’s the average childcare bill in Northern Ireland. This makes it the largest outgoing cost for over one third of families in Northern Ireland.

Women remain adversely affected by high childcare costs, as it’s still predominantly mothers who reduce their hours or leave the workforce to raise their children. This not only impacts their future career progression and pension, it denies women financial freedom and opportunities to fulfil their ambitions.

In the Northern Ireland Childcare Cost Survey 2018, more than half of respondents (52%) had to go without or cut back on other expenses to meet their childcare costs. This rises to 56% of single-parent households. Families are reducing spending on heating, clothes, cutting back on the quality of food they are eating or, in some cases, skipping meals altogether to pay their childcare bill. Increasingly, parents are being forced into debt, with 22% using credit cards to pay for childcare, others relying on loans from families and friends and even pay-day loans. Over half of those children growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland now live in a working household, the outcome of years of austerity, cuts and welfare reform, linked to a lack of free childcare, which have driven many working class people into poverty and have hit working class women especially hard. Rising childcare costs have significantly outstripped rises in wages over the past decade.

Introducing policies such as the 30 hours free childcare for three to four years available in England would go a long way to alleviating some of the hardship and difficulties experienced by working class families. The scheme in England, however, is far from sufficient, as it’s only 38 weeks per year and falls short of what is actually needed. Families in the UK are spending over 30% of their income on childcare, almost three times the OECD average and the highest cost in the Western world as a proportion of income.

The NI executive was already lagging decades behind in developing a childcare strategy before the collapse of the Assembly. We urgently need a complete overhaul of childcare and early years provision in Northern Ireland. This is not just an individual matter for working families, the provision of good quality childcare has the potential to improve social outcomes, especially over the long run, including in educational achievement, employment and preventing crime. We demand free, public, high quality childcare and early years provision. It is time for a real campaign made up of trade unions and activists to fight for change.

by Dagmar Walgraeve