Mums left with 'no way out' as Northern Ireland childcare costs soar

Soaring costs in childcare are forcing parents to choose whether it's financially possible to have another baby, UTV's View From Stormont reports.

It's a decision stemming from the United Kingdom having the the most expensive childcare system in the world.

Parents in Northern Ireland are facing that reality every day. A decision not to have anymore children isn't the only repercussion.

UTV has heard from people, particularly women, who fear for their careers at a time when they are wanting to advance them while trying to juggle raising young children.

In March, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced an expansion of 30 hours of free childcare in England, providing much needed support to parents. That would mean all children under-5 would qualify under the new proposals which would come into effect in September 2025.

That plan, however, doesn't cover Northern Ireland.

Currently, four and five year olds in Northern Ireland can receive 12.5 hours free pre-school classes but childcare is not funded.

It will be for any incoming Executive at Stormont to decide how much money goes into providing support for parents at a time when departments are struggling under reduced budgets.

Add to that the fact that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a set-in-stone childcare strategy on how to deal with the crisis.

Christina and Conall McCann's three-year-old daughter Caoimhe attends creche three days a week.

To have her attending the facility for five days, isn't financially viable for the Belfast couple currently due to the cost.

Conall said: "At the minute if were to have her in full-time childcare so that we could work or so that we could just be able to take days off, it would be more expensive to have her in creche full-time than it would be just to have a roof over her head, which is certainly an interesting one to weigh up."

According to a recent survey from Stormont's Department of Education, the average costs for formal childcare is £542 per month - that equates to around a quarter of Northern Ireland's average household income.

UTV spoke with a group of mums in Lisburn who meet up every week with their babies and toddlers.

"I was looking for childcare for a long time and couldn't get a space and I've had to ask to reduce my hours because I couldn't afford to go back to work," said Paula Kane, a mum who hopes to return to work in November following maternity leave.

"If I was to send my daughter to two days in childcare a week, it would wipe out my wage, pretty much."

It's a sentiment also felt by Catalina Hughes.

"Lots of women that I speak to, and myself as well, are choosing not to have more children because you can't afford it," she said.

Catalina added: "What's that going to do to the future population and everything if we don't have enough people to work?"

Aoife Hamilton from Employers for Childcare said Northern Ireland needs its own 'bespoke' plan on how to tackle issues facing parents and the sector as a whole.

She does not believe extending 30-hours free childcare to Northern Ireland is a viable option due to pressures already felt by providers.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, 275 providers have permanently closed their doors.

"We would work a lot with childcare providers and with parents in England and we know that the scheme isn't working for them," she told UTV.

"We know it's putting providers under a huge amount of pressure."

Aoife added 30 hours of free childcare a week 'simply isn't financially sustainable' for many providers.

Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP said is a priority for her party when an Executive is restored.

"Childcare is too expensive, it's putting huge pressure of families," she said.

"It's not flexible enough, it's difficult to obtain, this needs to be tackled. I know that families right throughout Northern Ireland are under huge pressure. It's pushing people, mainly women, out of the workplace as well, so this is a huge issue. We're very conscious of that.

"This is a huge issue and the DUP are going to make it a priority."

Claire Hanna of the SDLP said childcare had been 'overlooked' for many years.

"It is something successive Executives have not paid enough attention too," she said.

"I do think there is a momentum, we do have a boost in the economy and I do think we have a realisation that we are locking so many people, particularly women, out of the jobs market by not providing for them."

Parents in Northern Ireland hope that this is the case and that childcare is at the top of an ever-growing list of priorities.

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