The Liberal Democrats are likely to consider a proposal to extend free childcare to one-year olds at their party conference this week.
The proposal is designed to help bridge the gap between maternity leave and nursery provision, providing children between the ages of one and two with 10 free hours of care per week. Plans would also see all two-year olds receive funding for 15 hours per week, not just those deemed to be most needy. In addition, three and four-year olds would receive 20 funded-hours per week rather than 15.
The radical changes have been closely reviewed by the Deputy Prime Minister and his advisors, and are likely to receive party-wide support on Saturday. This could bring the Liberal Democrats back into conflict with the Conservatives on the difficult ambitions of delivering low-cost childcare, following Nick Clegg’s u-turn on ratios earlier this year.
Whilst the investment would be significant, it should encourage more women to return to work after having a child and boost the childcare industry and economy as whole. George Osborne recently stated that a million women are “missing” from the UK workforce, many of whom are mothers who feel it is not worth working because childcare is too expensive.
Women considering returning to part-time work after maternity leave, in particular, find it is cheaper to stay at home with the children than take up their job. It is the high costs during this two-year gap, between maternity leave of up to a year, and when the child starts to receive free childcare aged three – or two for lower-income families – that are putting women off work, say Lib Dem advisers. While the dilemma also faces fathers, it is mainly mothers who make the decision to give up their careers.