Employers For Childcare participates in policy round-table at Queen’s University with Labour Shadow Ministers and cross-party delegation of MPs

Employers For Childcare was invited to participate in a policy round-table event which took place at Queen’s University Belfast on Monday 25 March 2024, and which was attended by a cross-party delegation of MPs including Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hilary Benn MP and Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, Fleur Anderson MP.

The MPs wanted to learn about the existing opportunities and challenges that face people and businesses across Northern Ireland. The event brought together a panel of experts who are leading policy work around business, trade (including the Windsor Framework), the provision of public services including childcare, education and healthcare, and environment and sustainability.

We were delighted that Aoife Hamilton was invited to participate representing Employers For Childcare as the leading organisation in Northern Ireland campaigning for investment in childcare to support working parents and children’s development.

Participants were divided into three round-tables and Aoife joined the group focusing on the provision of public services in Northern Ireland along with Dr Len O’Hagan CBE (Chair), Professor Kathryn Higgins (QUB), Jackie Redpath (Greater Shankill Partnership Forum) and Fionntán Hargey (Market Development Association). MPs moved around the tables with the invited speakers giving a short overview on their key area of expertise at each rotation. There was a strong focus on childcare from the MPs with issues discussed including:

  • early learning and childcare as key infrastructure that underpins our wider economy and society – must be addressed as a labour market issue
  • clear recognition that the current childcare system it is not delivering – it is unaffordable to access or deliver, there are major workforce challenges and quality is at risk
  • more than 40% of the workforce in Northern Ireland are parents with dependent children
  • to deliver on its priorities across all departments the Government first needs to ensure it has the workforce to deliver – and that requires investment in childcare
  • rather than focus on what it costs to deliver world class early learning and childcare, we should examine the cost of NOT investing in this sector in terms of barriers to work, late intervention etc
  • the record investment in childcare in England is welcome, but there are problems with how this investment is being targeted that mean it is not the solution for Northern Ireland
  • while there were real challenges from the collapse of the Executive, it also gave time to learn from the experience elsewhere in the UK and Ireland.

In addressing the group, Aoife talked through the problems with the English 30 hours free childcare scheme and introduced Employers For Childcare’s proposed funding model that takes a starting point of tackling disadvantage and talked through its four pillars:

  • Standardised pre-school education
  • Universal subsidy with conditionality levers
  • Targeted support aimed at tackling disadvantage
  • Increasing uptake of UK wide support schemes.

She also raised issues with the existing cap on support available through the Tax-Free Childcare scheme and proposed the re-opening of Childcare Vouchers, an employer-led salary sacrifice scheme which helps parents to save money on registered childcare costs, whilst also delivering savings to employers through reduced National Insurance Contributions.

Overall, this was a positive and constructive event focused on the way forward for public services in Northern Ireland, with childcare being a key theme for discussion.