Northern Ireland Economic Recovery Action Plan published but no mention of childcare

The Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds, has published the ‘Economic Recovery Action Plan, Rebuilding a Stronger Economy’. The plan sets out a range of actions to help kick-start economic recovery in Northern Ireland. We welcome work on the Economic Recovery Plan, however we are deeply disappointed that it fails to reflect that childcare is central to our economic recovery from Covid-19. The pandemic demonstrated clearly just how essential childcare is to our economy, and to society more broadly with Ministers, including the First and Deputy First Ministers recognising this in their daily media briefings during the first phase of the pandemic. There is also limited recognition of how the recovery plan can support women – who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The Action Plan, outlines proposals to deliver decisive interventions that will contribute to:

  • Building a higher skilled and agile workforce;
  • Pursuing and securing better jobs; and, ultimately,
  • Producing a more regionally balanced economy.

While we support these objectives, the planned interventions cannot be successfully achieved without including the following key areas in the plan:

  • Childcare is an essential component of our economic infrastructure: this enables parents to go to work, education or training. This allows employers to recruit, develop and retain the skilled, experienced workforce they need. Childcare is key in removing barriers to employment, particularly for women and for those living in rural areas. It also assists in addressing structural inequalities and improving the lives of children, young people and their parents. Longer term, there is clear evidence that children who benefit from quality, enriching childcare achieve better educational outcomes and, over their lifetime, have higher earning potential.  The childcare sector requires significant long-term, strategic support and investment and this necessitates a joined-up approach from across Government to deliver an ambitious and world-leading Childcare Strategy.
  • Greater recognition of women: The majority of employees who work part-time in Northern Ireland – 79% – are women and, across the working age population, a third of women here are recorded as “economically inactive”, compared to just over a fifth of men. Economic activity rates are lowest for women with a youngest dependent child of pre-school age.[1] The pandemic has caused much disruption to the lives of women and many of the key sectors worst affected by the pandemic were primarily occupied by women (eg. retail and hospitality). While all parents have taken on greater responsibility for home schooling and childcare during Covid-19, research has shown that this has had a greater impact on women, with a potentially significant knock-on effect to career progression longer term and, in the shorter term, reducing the hours they can work and their income. Our research with parents as part of the Northern Ireland Childcare Survey 2020 found that during the first lockdown, 20% of mothers had to use unpaid leave or annual leave to manage childcare and 61% had to balance working alongside childcare responsibilities.
  • Social enterprise: Social enterprises in Northern Ireland have played a key role in meeting the needs of communities during Covid-19. Many saw their existing income streams disappear overnight as the pandemic hit, but they responded in innovative ways to adapt how they worked and what they delivered in order to be able to continue to support those who needed their services. The Economy Minister has publicly recognised the important part that the Social Economy has to play in economic recovery – but we need to see long-term investment, to support existing Social Enterprises during the rebuilding phase and to encourage the development of new Social Enterprise businesses, which will create employment and generate positive social impact.

Fundamentally, we believe that the Plan also should address key structural weaknesses in order to deliver long-term economic recovery. The absence of a Childcare Strategy in Northern Ireland hinders economic recovery for parents, and particularly mothers who are unable to access affordable childcare in order to get into and stay in the workforce, training or education.

It is estimated that economic output in Northern Ireland fell by around 25% at the height of lockdown in Spring 2020. Many employees remain on furlough, and we have also seen a high level of redundancies, which is expected to increase further as the Job Support Scheme comes to an end, and particularly in those hardest hit sectors like retail and hospitality. At the same time, the number of people claiming financial support through the Universal Credit system has increased by 90% from March 2020 to January 2021. We believe some of these challenges can be overcome through greater investment in our childcare infrastructure, which is of critical importance to enable economic recovery and to support childcare and families who are at risk of financial hardship. For a third of families, childcare is their highest monthly bill while at the same time, providers are struggling to be sustainable. This needs to be addressed.

Failure to mention childcare in this Recovery Plan comes as a huge disappointment and we strongly believe our society cannot fully recover without a commitment to value our vital childcare infrastructure. We appreciate that this document is intended to start a wider and more detailed conversation on the recovery journey, and we would urge the Department for the Economy to talk to those seeking work, to the self-employed and to employers and business owners about how vital a thriving childcare infrastructure is and will be to them.