Childcare is in crisis and parents are paying the price. There is no time to waste.

Sinead McLaughlin is an SDLP MLA in Foyle

Tune into the radio most mornings and chances are that you will hear a debate underway on access to some of the most vital elements of our public services. From patients struggling to access GP surgeries to commuters facing the latest delay to progress on crucial road and rail projects, these stories are unacceptably common. Yet, one element of our social infrastructure is discussed far less on our airwaves, the early years and childcare settings that care for our most precious resource. Access to these services is central to our economy and the ability of everyone, especially women, to participate in the labour market. In particular, they play a critical role in giving children a fairer start in life and they are core to a child’s development, especially in the first 1,001 critical days.

Despite its importance, for many years it is fair to say that childcare has been deprioritised in our politics, classified as a ‘women’s issue’, for discussion only when an election rolls around. Meanwhile, many elements of the childcare sector have experienced a silent collapse while the costs have escalated for parents to eye-watering levels. I regularly hear from parents who are paying more than their mortgage for the costs of childcare and for far too many people, it simply does not pay to go to work in the morning. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has fallen behind the accessibility of early years education in Great Britain and far behind that provided in the South, where ambitious progress means costs will be lowered by around 25% over the next twelve months. This chronic neglect on the part of our Executive has had serious consequences in entrenching poverty and economic inactivity, especially in places like my city of Derry which suffers the highest levels anywhere across the North.

The OECD recently confirmed that the UK has the highest childcare costs in the developed world and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that among these islands, Northern Ireland has the least accessible and most expensive early years infrastructure. Even before the current crisis in energy bills, families here were struggling with these extortionate and unsustainable costs. I see first-hand in Derry how parents have been forced out of the labour market and into poverty by these costs, literally paying the price for the political failure over the last decade to deliver a Childcare Strategy.

Now, as energy bills spiral and providers struggle more than ever before, workers are worried about their job security and parents are worried about rising fees and even losing access altogether. I recently visited a childcare provider who told me they felt like “the last man standing” in the community, having watched three providers around them close their doors. These small businesses are terrified and as more of them turn off the lights, their local community is robbed of necessary services. Others have been forced to raise fees, meaning parents who were already struggling to pay, are at their wit’s end. Many childcare businesses are telling us that this is just as serious a crisis, if not more so, than the Covid pandemic for this sector which employs 10,000 people.

While parents and providers need support, Stormont is in paralysis and MLAs like those in my party who want to go to work and do our jobs, have our hands tied, unable to deliver the support that is so desperately needed.

Almost all parties made a commitment last May to take forward measures to support childcare and it’s recognised across the board, in rhetoric at least, that a Childcare Strategy should be developed. With no Executive in sight, the promised Strategy due for consideration in March will be cold comfort to many businesses unable to cope with the cost of doing business this winter.

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