Northern Ireland

Parents facing 'impossible' choices over childcare costs

Alliance MLA Kate Nicholl.
Alliance MLA Kate Nicholl. Alliance MLA Kate Nicholl.

ALLIANCE MLA Kate Nicholl has said parents are facing “impossible choices” over rising childcare costs.

Ms Nicholl was speaking ahead of the Institute of Director’s Women’s Leadership Conference in Belfast this Friday.

This week, The Irish News reported that more parents could be forced out of work as nursery providers prepare to increase their costs in April.

Two mothers also described how their monthly childcare costs had become higher than their mortgage.

Ms Nicholl called the numbers “staggering,” referring to one parent of two children under four, who pays £25,400 a year for full time care.

Even by subtracting the maximum amount of government assistance available under the tax-free childcare scheme, £2,000, this still came to £23,400.

She said a typical earner, with student loan repayments and minimum pension contribution, would need to earn at least £33,000 a year.

“That’s 10 per cent higher than the median wage in Northern Ireland. Just to cover their childcare costs,” she said.

“I hear it from constituents’ time and time again; parents face the burden of impossible choices. Give up work to look after young children, and seek to return years later – with the impact that will have had on your career - when children are in full time education? Decide to have a smaller family? Accept that having the family you dreamed of is only possible with severe financial hardship?”

Ms Nicholl added that the rising costs were not down to profiteering in the childcare sector.

Even before the latest price rises, a survey by Employers for Childcare in 2021 found that almost a third of childcare providers described their financial situation as “distressed” or “struggling,” to the extent they were at risk from closure within a year.

Generally low pay levels for experienced childcare workers means staff are also leaving the profession for better paid jobs, meaning providers have to turn away children and leave more mothers unable to return to work.

With Northern Ireland the only UK region without a childcare strategy, Ms Nicholl said it was time to view childcare as “key economic infrastructure”.

“If we ensure high-quality childcare is affordable for parents to access and providers to deliver, this not only boosts the economy and values the sector and its workforce, crucially it will give every child the best start in life.”

A spokesperson for Employers for Childcare, said nursery providers not only allowed parents to work, they also played a key role in children’s early cognitive development.

“This is why we want to see investment in childcare to make it affordable for all families and to ensure that those who work in the sector can be appropriately rewarded for the critical role they play as children’s first educators,” they said.

While increased flexibility in working patterns since the pandemic has eased pressure on parents, jugging work with drop-offs and pick-ups, they added: “This is not an option for everyone and we still need to see a thriving childcare sector that delivers the high quality childcare that many parents need and rely on."