The new Economy and Education Ministers are being urged to place investing in affordable childcare in Northern Ireland at the top of their in-trays, as the region has some of the highest childcare costs in Europe. Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland (FSB) and Women In Business NI (WIB) say the lack of investment in a coherent childcare policy is now an emergency which must be addressed immediately.
Building on significant work of the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, as well as other key childcare stakeholders, the business groups have come together to develop proposals that can start to deliver in months - not years – helping to enable more women to join the workforce or to start a business.
Commenting, CEO of Women in Business NI, Roseann Kelly, said: “According to the Competitiveness Scorecard Report by Ulster University, childcare costs are a major factor in a parent’s ability to work.
“Often, it can be unaffordable to return to work because of the lack of subsidy.
"This makes NI a relatively expensive location for childcare in comparison to other European countries who do more to assist parents."
She added: “We need to adopt a more progressive approach to childcare, much as we do with health and education and accept that if we are to see the dividends of a post-pandemic economic growth, attracting more employers and investment, we need to tackle the greatest obstacle facing those who want to work or start a business but cannot because of childcare constraints.”
While FSB and WIB welcome the continued support from the Northern Ireland Executive for childcare providers to help to cover the additional costs and keep them afloat, this does not address the widely accepted need for investment, and there is a need for government to step in and properly address this.
Commenting, FSB NI Policy Chair, Tina McKenzie said: “When we look at our economic inactivity figures, caring for family or home is the most cited reason by women regarding why they are unable to work.
Ms McKenzie continued: "This is a unique scenario, which sets us apart from other parts of the UK and Ireland. Despite best efforts by childcare providers, the cost of childcare remains prohibitive for many families, which therefore restricts choice in terms of the role parents can play in the economy.
“While the recent action to provide childcare grants for those on Universal Credit was a positive step, something much more comprehensive is required to fully address the issue.
"The pandemic has demonstrated that childcare is vital economic infrastructure so parents can go to work. Just as the pandemic has accelerated change in other areas, it must also be the catalyst for progress in the delivery of a fully funded childcare strategy.
“Frustrated by persistent lack of progress, the business community is now joining other stakeholders to come forward with proposals that help address this issue.
She concluded: "Although a strategy and investment are essential, women should not have to wait for years while this is agreed and implemented. We will apply an entrepreneurial mindset to engage with the new Education Minister and Economy Minister, both of whom have responsibilities in this area, so we can finally deliver flexible, affordable and accessible childcare.”