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The full potential of the female workforce is being lost due to the high cost of childcare, argues Vidhya Alakeson

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Childcare costs continue to outpace inflation and wages, putting a
real strain on family finance. What price do we pay as a country for
these high childcare costs?

We have recently published the findings of a survey we conducted in partnership with Mumsnet about work and childcare. The survey of nearly 2,000 mums revealed the scale of lost potential in the UK from not enabling mothers to work the hours they would like.

One in five working mums would like to work more - on average, ten extra hours a week - and four out of ten mums currently not working said they would like to work. On average, they would like to work 23 hours a week.

Translate these into national figures and the lost potential becomes clear. There are approximately 5.5 million working mums and 2.9 million mums who do not work in the UK. Even if only a small proportion do actually work extra hours, we are still talking about a lot more women earning more and paying more taxes and fewer families needing support from benefits and tax credits.

The high cost of childcare is the biggest barrier to working or working more. Mothers on lower earnings were more likely to say that childcare was a barrier and also more likely to want to work extra hours or return to work.

This raises questions about the current focus of childcare policy. The decision to spend the vast majority of new money on Tax-Free Childcare for better-off families is unlikely to deliver significant payback for Government in terms of new employment because higher earning mothers are less likely to want to change their working patterns. Targeting more funding at lower income families would be better for families and better for the economy.

One in five working mums say that inadequate access to flexible working is also a barrier to work. Even if we make childcare much more affordable, balancing work and family commitments will always be challenging unless flexibility becomes a workplace norm.

Vidhdya Alakeson is deputy chief executive at the Resolution Foundation

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