The interface between work and childcare has changed significantly over the past few decades. The growing rate of female participation in the UK labour market means that women now make up around half of the workforce. This means that a very high proportion of working women and men are parents and that far fewer mothers stay at home full-time to look after their children. The traditional model of a father working full-time as the sole breadwinner is a thing of the past. The provision of accessible and good-quality childcare for working parents is, therefore, a prerequisite for both men and women with young children to be able to participate to their fullest potential at work.

Current policy is not hitting the mark

Currently, all three and four-year-olds are entitled to 570 hours of free childcare a year (typically taken as 15 hours a week for 38 term-time weeks), but there is no childcare funding for the majority of 0-2 year olds. Current government policy will extend the entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year-olds from this year.

At the end of 2016, the CIPD carried out research among working parents to gain insight into their aspirations and experiences in relation to childcare. The survey of over 1,000 HR professionals found that the lack of free childcare for 0-2 year-olds could be having a negative impact on women returning to work after maternity leave. Two-thirds of respondents (68%) agreed that the participation rate of women with young children at work would improve to a large (30%) or some extent (38%) if the same level of free childcare available for three- and four-year-olds was available for children up to two years of age.

So what are the main political parties offering this time around?


The Conservative Manifesto says that it has ‘high ambitions for the quality of childcare’. It reaffirms its policy commitment to 30 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds but qualifies this by stating that it is for ‘working parents who find it difficult to manage the costs of childcare.’ It will also ‘introduce a presumption that all new primary schools should include a nursery’. Further commitments are limited to assessing ‘what more is needed, including looking at the best ways that childcare is provided elsewhere in Europe and the world.’ So, in a nutshell – no additional hard and fast commitments aside from each new primary school including a nursery, so hardly representing comprehensive coverage country-wide.


The Labour Party Manifesto starts off by recognising the gap between the end of maternity leave and the beginning of full-time schooling which makes it ‘difficult for parents, particularly women, to return to work.’ It commits to introducing educational provision for early years children ‘as part of a National Education Service that is truly cradle-to-grave.’ It makes a number of specific policy commitments, including:

  • an overhaul of the existing childcare system in which subsidies are given directly to parents who often struggle to use them
  • a pledge to maintain current commitments on free hours and make significant capital investment during our first two years of government, to ensure that the places exist to meet demand
  • a phasing in of subsidised provision on top of free-hour entitlements, to ensure that everyone has access to affordable childcare, no matter their working pattern
  • transition to a qualified, graduate-led workforce, by increasing staff wages and enhancing training opportunities
  • extension of the 30 free hours to all two-year-olds, and a move towards making some childcare available for one-year-olds and extending maternity pay to 12 months.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrat Manifesto also makes strong commitments on childcare if the Party came to power, pledging to:

  • provide 15 hours a week of free childcare to the parents of all two-year-olds in England, and then prioritise 15 hours’ free childcare for all working parents in England with children aged between nine months and two years
  • commit to an ambitious long-term goal of 30 hours’ free childcare a week for all parents in England with children aged from two to four years, and all working parents from the end of paid parental leave to two years. This will not only help parents afford to work, but will also help all children start school confident, happy and ready to learn.
  • ensure that this provision is fully funded at sustainable levels, provides flexibility for parents who work unsocial hours and enables parents to use free hours during school holidays.
  • fund more extensive childcare, and provide better back-to-work support to reach an ambitious goal of one million more women in work by 2025.

And will it hit the mark?

Firstly, it’s not clear whether or not the Conservative Manifesto wording ‘for working parents who find it difficult to manage the costs of childcare’ implies a possible dilution of the current policy commitment and potential means testing to assess eligibility. Under current government policy the additional 15 hours of free childcare is available for families ‘where both parents are working (or the sole parent is working in a lone-parent family), and each parent earns the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the national minimum or living wage, and earns less than £100,000 a year.’

So, at face value, the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifesto commitments are more far-reaching and comprehensive. Both manifestos recognise the gap in provision for the under-threes, for example, and the need to offer affordable childcare for younger children, which would be a welcome policy change to encourage more new parents to return to work.

Another criticism of the current government’s commitment to 30 hours’ free childcare is the ability and capacity of childcare providers to make available the number of required places. For example, an inquiry into the free entitlement to early years education by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee highlights a range of risks identified by the National Audit Office to the successful implementation of the new 30-hour entitlement. These include concerns by childcare providers about the levels of funding that will be available and the possibility that providers could choose to offer additional hours to three- and four-year-olds by reducing the number of places offered to disadvantaged two-year-olds. A survey by the Pre-school Learning Alliance supports this perspective, with half of childcare providers fearing forced closure as a result of the 30-hour free entitlement offer for three and four-year-olds. It also found that half of providers would offer fewer places to children of other ages if they did deliver the extended entitlement.

Therefore, recognition by both Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos that sustainable funding approaches to make sure enough places are available is welcome. Both these manifesto commitments look more promising for future childcare provision. However, the devil is in the detail and we will have to await for more information on how these plans would work in practice – if given the chance. Of major importance is that any new government undertakes a thorough consultation with business and other interested stakeholders to develop a cohesive and realistic offering that will work in practice.

At a time of greater economic and labour market uncertainty, we need a national childcare strategy developed by government of whatever political complexion, in collaboration with employers, so that parents with younger children have better opportunities to return to work after having a baby. Our research showed that many employers also do not see childcare as a strategic business issue that can considerably affect their access to skills and talent. With more and more working fathers seeking active involvement in bringing up their children, it is the well-being, engagement and retention of both genders that are at stake.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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