As the new prime minister burnishes his family man credentials, mothers this weekend are highlighting that when it comes to this government, their needs are getting the same worrying lack of attention that Bing’s friend Pando gets when he keeps taking his trousers off. With childcare costs reaching up to two-thirds of their income, women of childbearing age are leaving the workforce in their droves – meaning their taxes and their talent both go untapped. In response, campaigners are taking to the streets as part of Pregnant then Screwed’s March of the Mummies to highlight the fact that, while mothers may be surviving on a diet of Pom-Bears and strong coffee, we also have a voice and a vote, and we’re not afraid to use either.
The UK has the second most expensive childcare system in the world, and parental leave that may as well be called “parental lump it” because so few can actually afford to take it. We have failed to make flexible working a reality for all but the most wealthy. And the pandemic exacerbated what was already a raw deal.
Whether they were more likely to be furloughed than men, more likely to be made redundant – and now more likely to be stuck, unable to return to work, because there is still no affordable childcare, many mothers face bleak prospects.
The new prime minister’s track record does not bode well. As chancellor he was taken to court for refusing to recognise maternity leave when providing pandemic support to self-employed women. When challenged, he compared it to a holiday, ignoring the fact that it affected only women. Such blindness towards mothers wasn’t a one off. Rishi Sunak also blocked plans to make childcare funding more flexible for those on the lowest incomes because he claimed there could be more fraud.
The sound of mothers gnashing their teeth as the chancellor “thanked” them for “juggling work and childcare” during Covid was only drowned out by their frustration as millions were splashed on filling potholes while not a pound was offered to stop nurseries going bust.
Removing the barriers that prevent mothers being able to care for children and have a career goes well beyond a lack of nursery places – a sector in which 4,000 providers have gone out of business in the last year alone. Maternity benefit is just 47% of the national minimum wage, meaning increasingly women are pushed into debt or into returning to work early. The system fails fathers too. They only get two weeks’ statutory leave and are rarely encouraged to take more time off, despite evidence showing how much this benefits children. Government statistics also show that the number of men quitting work for family has gone up 15% in the past year.
Despite talk of the value of flexible working, and the leadership of enlightened major employers, the government has yet to make it the default, and only 10% of jobs are advertised as part-time. Other countries take a different approach and reap the rewards. The Canadian government has just invested C$30bn (£19bn) in its childcare sector to create a system that will eventually cost parents no more than C$10 (£6.40) a day. It did this because of a 2012 survey that found that for every C$1 invested in early childhood education, it got between C$1.50 and C$2.80 back in the wider economy. The economics are compelling: a 50% increase in current flexible working rates could result in the creation of 51,200 new jobs and a net economic gain of £55bn.
Too many in public life accept the narrative that motherhood is only done right if it’s a struggle. Consequently, mothers get shamed whatever they do: go out to work and your kids will be feral; work part-time and you’re not really committed to your employer; stay at home and you’re failing the forces of feminism. Women in all political parties report being castigated for abandoning their children if they stand for office, and the House of Commons thrives on traditions and cultures that don’t fit well with kids’ bedtimes. Westminster is a place where access to maternity leave and cover is determined not by policy but by patronage. When the place that makes the laws has such an unwelcoming approach to mothers, it has little credibility to challenge others to do better.
Sunak should take note of the March of the Mummies, not so that he has something nice to say next time he talks to Mumsnet or because Labour is leading the way on committing to reform, but because our economy and our society won’t thrive if we don’t end the motherhood penalty that is keeping women stuck in a nightmare. Childcare is a vital part of the national infrastructure, and those failing to invest in it are the real anti-growth coalition: there can be no solution to the cost of living crisis engulfing the UK until the problem is tackled. Mothers are putting MPs on notice they are on the move and headed towards the ballot box.
Stella Creasy is the Labour and Cooperative MP for Walthamstow