At the start of the week BBC Two documented in ‘Babies in the Office’ how Addison Lee, London’s biggest cab hire firm, became the first company in the UK to allow staff to care for their babies while working in the office.
With childcare costs at an all time high such schemes appear to promise salvation for hard-pressed parents.
Just think; you could continue to come into work and keep earning, without having to spend any of that hard earned cash on paying for someone else to look after Junior. After all, they’d be parked in the buggy next to your desk. Sure, with the crying and feeding and burping your productivity might suffer, and your BlackBerry probably isn’t going to survive dousing in baby sick. But your work-life balance is going to be in perfect harmony.
Except it isn’t. Childcare in Britain is in crisis, and the solution isn’t compelling people to cart their babies into the office.
According to the Daycare Trust, only 21% of councils in Scotland provide enough state-funded childcare to enable parents to work full-time – the figures are 46% in England and 17% in Wales. The average cost of part-time childcare for a toddler now exceeds £100 per week – £5,000 per year – in many parts of Britain, meaning parents spend an average of a third of their income on private childcare, in comparison to 10% of income in Denmark.
Parents have the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of their children, but that doesn’t mean they hold the sole responsibility. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a good proverb for good reason: children’s care, welfare and education is a public good, conferring externalities beyond the direct beneficiaries of toddlers and parents.
I don’t have children, but I know I benefit from the population being healthy, literate and good citizens, and that’s a process that starts from the earliest years. It’s therefore a process I’m happy to pay for through taxation.
People should be able to enjoy becoming and being parents, without the pressure of returning to work too soon. That needs extended parental leave for both parents, shared equally or divided in favour of whoever wishes to be the primary caregiver. People should also be able to return to work, instead of being compelled through economics to stay at home to care for their children, or to give up most of their earnings to pay for someone else to care for them. That means flexible, family-friendly working and decent state funded childcare beyond the hours of 9 to 5.
None of these things are beyond grasp. Many employers offer flexible parental leave and working hours and there is an infrastructure for council-delivered daycare. There’s more scope for companies to get involved too, in offering crèches to help reduce costs for staff.
Addison Lee and the 170 firms in the United States (where there is no statutory right to maternity pay) that allow staff to bring their babies to work might think they are being family-friendly. But properly enabling parents to separate work and life, through flexibility on the part of the employer and funding on the part of government would be even family-friendlier.