24/11/2021

NI Faces Childcare Crisis That Could Impact Parent's Ability To Work

Northern Ireland could be facing a childcare crisis which would have a severe impact on parents' ability to work, the Employers for Childcare (EfC) charity has warned.

Publishing its latest Northern Ireland Childcare Survey, they warned that a childcare crisis would further add to the pressures on the economy with many employers already struggling to recruit and retain staff. Almost a third of childcare providers who responded to the survey described their financial position as "struggling" or "distressed" meaning that they are focused on survival over the next year or, in some cases, at immediate risk of closure.

According to EfC, childcare providers point to Covid-19 related pressures having added to the challenges already facing their sector. 7 out of 10 are either just breaking even or are making a loss, which is clearly not sustainable in the longer term. A third of providers anticipate increasing their fees in the next year to stay afloat – rising to two thirds of day nurseries. The impact is not just financial, with three quarters of Northern Ireland's childcare providers reporting that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on them or their staff in terms of mental health and well-being. At the same time, families are struggling to find and pay for the childcare they need with over a quarter (28%) of parents having difficulties meeting the costs of childcare. The average cost of a full-time childcare place here is now over a third of average household income – one of the highest figures across all OECD countries.

Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare, said: "We have been reporting on childcare in Northern Ireland for over a decade and for many years, parents and childcare providers have been telling us about the issues they face, but this is the most worrying picture yet. Childcare providers are facing unprecedented challenges – in recruiting and retaining staff and meeting salaries, particularly with the increase announced to the National Living Wage, as well as rising food and energy costs and uncertainty over numbers and occupancy levels. This could impact on their ability to deliver the high-quality childcare that enables parents to work. The sector rightly benefited from vital Government funding during Covid-19 which was a real lifeline for many but now much, much more is required. We need to see long-term, strategic investment in this essential economic sector. Without it, costs are likely to continue to rise and the sector will be at risk of collapse meaning parents will be unable to work, our economic recovery will be held back and children will miss out on important developmental opportunities.

Looking ahead, Aoife continued: "Work is underway on a new Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland and there is now a not-to-be-missed opportunity for our Executive Ministers to show their commitment to building back better, and creating a world-class childcare infrastructure – that supports parents to work, aids the wider economy and society and critically, invests in the social and educational development of our children – the benefits of which will be felt for generations to come. Ahead of the upcoming Assembly Elections we are calling on all of our elected representatives and candidates to listen to parents and childcare providers and to make sure childcare is a top priority for a new Executive."

Aoife concluded: "Although most working parents will be eligible for some financial support towards their childcare costs, a third of parents told us they are not claiming any help with their childcare – so we would urge all parents, whatever their income level, to call our Family Benefits Advice Service on Freephone 0800 028 3008 and we can identify what is available for their family."

DUP MLA Gary Middleton has said the results of the Employers for Childcare survey reinforce the need for greater access to affordable childcare. The results back up a recent DUP survey which gathered the views of over 1,000 parents and childcare providers on issues relating to the sector.

The Foyle MLA said: "The cost of living has increased for every family in Northern Ireland with the price of fuel, electricity and heating all going up in recent months. For many families the cost of childcare is one of the single biggest bills they face each month yet Northern Ireland lags behind other UK regions in supporting working families.

"The Employers for Childcare survey highlights the stark reality for both parents and childcare providers at present. With an average cost of £170 per week this presents a significant financial hurdle. As a party we recently surveyed over 1,000 parents and found that nearly 85% of people had their return to work impacted by childcare costs.

"Of those, nearly 75% either delayed returning to work or reduced the number of hours they worked because of the cost of childcare. Nearly a quarter of parents also rated the significance of childcare taking up nearly a full wage within the household.

"The Employers for Childcare survey highlights the problems faced by childcare providers that despite the costs, a third of providers feel at immediate risk of closure or are focused on survival over the next 12 months.

"The DUP wants to introduce a Childcare Act to provide 30 hours of free childcare for 3-4 year olds, bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK in this area. The provision of more and better childcare provision however must not be at the cost of the people, mainly women, who work in this sector. It is clear there is a need for action and we want to see this happen quickly."

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