Parents struggling with Northern Ireland's spiralling childcare costs

The average cost of childcare in Northern Ireland is a staggering six times the maximum payable in Sweden, with many working parents here having to turn to high-interest pay day loans to cover bills. It's high time our government addressed the issue, writes Leona O'Neill

Childcare in Northern Ireland may be of a high standard but it comes at a high cost

A NEW survey has revealed that more and more parents in Northern Ireland are reaching for so-called pay day loans to cover childcare costs. According to the Employers For Childcare’s annual Childcare Cost Survey, a quarter of parents here are turning to family and friends, and even reaching for high-interest pay day loans just to cover the costs of childcare.

The UK's childcare costs are ranked among the most expensive in the world. The crippling costs of childcare prevent many parents I know from entering and re-entering the workforce. Many intelligent, experienced, skilled women feel that going back into full-time work after having a child is not worth it due to the cost of childcare, and many parents who have gone back to work pay the equivalent of a mortgage to their childcare providers.

Some of my mother friends with small children in full-time childcare hand over more than three quarters, and some all, of their monthly wages to their creche – they feel like they are actually paying to go to work – but keep working as they want to keep their career and think it will be worthwhile when their children reach school age and the costs go down.

A recent Employers For Childcare’s annual Childcare Cost Survey has revealed that almost two thirds of parents struggled to meet their childcare bill either throughout the year or at some point during it. The weekly cost of full-time childcare is now on average £168 per week, or £8,736 per year. And Employers For Childcare chief executive Marie Marin says there no signs of costs stabilising.

“The trend in rising childcare costs will have an impact on the economy as people are forced out of their jobs as childcare makes work financially unviable,” she says. “A third of parents now tell us that their childcare bill is their largest monthly outgoing. This is a worrying sign at a time when other economic factors are keeping wages down.”

“In addition, the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme is still not widely acknowledged by families, and this will have major implications on their finances,” she says.

The 2016 Childcare Cost Survey is based on responses from 6,059 Northern Ireland parents. The survey seeks to track the cost of childcare in Northern Ireland and the impact rising costs have on families.

“The cost of childcare impacts heavily on work; half of the respondents reduced their working hours or left work altogether because of childcare costs,” says Ms Marin.

“But the impact on families goes further. Eighty one per cent of all informal childcare used by parents in the survey was provided by grandparents,” she says. “The role grandparents play in supporting parents to work is crucial for families but can be detrimental to their own circumstances physically, mentally, socially and financially.”

On the brighter side, 98 per cent of parents said they were happy with the quality of the care provided, although much more provision is needed particularly in areas including Fermanagh and Tyrone. Thirty six per cent of parents said it was difficult or very difficult to access affordable childcare and 47 per cent said it was difficult or very difficult to access flexible childcare.

Employers For Childcare says information gaps still exist and that only 31 per cent of parents were aware of the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme to be introduced in 2017.

The government plans to introduce a Tax-Free Childcare scheme to help parents with the cost of childcare. Despite the scheme being introduced early next year 69 per cent of parents were unaware of it and only 15 per cent of the parents who knew about the plans for this scheme had a good understanding of how it works, due to lack of promotion.

“It is abundantly clear that childcare is a social and economic issue which needs to be tackled urgently,” Marie Marin says.

Maybe we should be more like Sweden. The childcare costs of Swedish parents are a fraction of the amount that others pay in Europe, thanks to a state subsidy. Parents pay 3 per cent of their gross salary but there's a cap so mums and dads never have to pay more than 1,260 Swedish krona (around £113) a month per child – and if you have more children, you'll pay a maximum of 420 krona (£32) for the third child and nothing for the fourth.

Childcare costs are astronomical here. The standard of childcare may be second to none, but parents who work are being crippled by the costs, and those who wish to re-enter the workforce are being put off by the high fees.

It's something our government must take a serious look at. More people at work, more people setting up businesses and employing people, and more people being paid for good childcare could only be a good thing.

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