Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Why you may have a childcare bill of £16,224

Working couples struggling to pay for provision as charges spiral

Christine O'Toole with her children, Lucy, Adam and Rory

Soaring childcare costs mean that households with two children need an income of more than £46,000 a year just to pay their bills.

The shocking figure comes as new research shows the average family with two kids is now spending £16,224 per year (or £1,352 a month) on childcare.

It means that a working mother would have to earn a minimum salary of £20,200 solely to cover childcare bills.

Other average monthly costs for mortgage payments, electricity and heating bills, grocery and fuel amount to £1,435.

Coupled with the outlay in childcare, Northern Ireland families with two children need £2,787 per month in order to make ends meet.

Employers for Childcare — who carried out the Northern Ireland Childcare Cost 2012 Survey — warned that the financial benefits of working were being wiped out by childcare costs.

Its chief executive, Marie Marin, said the research painted a grim picture for families.

“The current economic climate has seen us return back into recession, unemployment rates have increased and many parents are in a situation of being in what has been termed as ‘pay-neutral’ work,” she said.

“This means that parents’ expenses, primarily childcare, consume their entire net earnings.”

The downturn in the economy has, however, led to more women returning to work after childbirth rather than opting to stay at home.

Figures from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment show that between July and September 239,000 women aged 25 to 49 were in employment — up 11,000 on 2009.

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said that soaring inflation, the downturn in the economy and the state of the labour market means more mothers are returning to work.

“As inflation has gone through the roof, food prices are up 30% in five years and energy bills 50% since 2007, so increasingly households are reliant on two incomes and can’t afford women to take career breaks. They are having to weigh up their options and look at the long- term benefits.

“In the short-term there may be no financial benefit in working if you have three children, but what is happening is people are investing in their future; trying to maintain a job, a potential source of income and skills as there would be strong competition for a job with the same salary and benefits in the future.”

Struggling parents have called on the Executive to intervene to reduce the crippling costs after the survey revealed that two out of three families are finding it difficult to pay for childcare.

Mr Ramsey explained that the burden of childcare costs means less disposable income, which has a knock-on effect on the economy.

He said: “Mortgage and childcare are absolute priorities and non-negotiable.

“Then comes things like heat, electricity and then discretionary spending.”

The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister stated on Monday that it will be putting a childcare strategy out for public consultation.

It is understood a draft strategy will be placed before the Executive on December 6.

Junior minister Jennifer McCann said that the aim was to implement an “integrated and affordable” childcare provision.

Her colleague, junior minister Jonathan Bell, said everyone with an interest in childcare provision should make their voices heard.

Meanwhile, Age NI chief Anne O’Reilly said that people aged over 55 in the UK provide unpaid care to the tune of £15.5bn.

She added: “In Northern Ireland, 40% of people tell us that they know an older person who spends more than 16 hours per week looking after grandchildren.”

So what do the parents say about childcare costs?

Interviews by Claire McNeilly

‘Middle income families are penalised’

Belfast arts officer Christine Osborne O’Toole (37) and her 38-year-old husband Cormac, a financial adviser, have three children, Rory (9), Adam (7) and Lucy (5). Their combined annual net income is £60,000. She says:

I was forced to take a three-year career break after Lucy was born because my childcare costs were working out as several hundred pounds more than my salary,” she said.

I went back to work full-time last year and my childcare costs are still more than half my take home pay.

But, at the same time, I’m glad that I have a job and that I was able to hang onto it.

I have found childcare vouchers a good help but wish that the £243 allowance was per child. I think that middle income families are penalised for having more than one or two kids as childcare vouchers and child benefit is all that we are entitled to in terms of help for working parents.

The children go to an after-school club which works out at £200 each a week before you take any other costs into account, so it works out about £900 a month.

It was going to be £2,200 for three kids five days a week when I was going to go back to work, which is why I took a career break. If they were in the after-school club five days a week it would be £250, but my dad Robert retired this year and he agreed to take them one day to help us with the rising costs. We’re really grateful to him.

Being unpaid for those three years on a career break I got used to scrimping, making menu lists and getting bargains, and I got a lot of the clothes for the kids from Oxfam and eBay.

Holiday-wise, we’ve also taken a hit. When we just had Rory, we would have gone to Spain for two weeks, but now we tend to spend time at my uncle’s place in Donegal and next year we’re planning to go to Jersey in a tent.”

‘It really should be a State provision’

Heather Ward (39), a teacher from Bangor, has two children, Elijah (8) and Heath (4). Her husband Peter (42) works in marine security and their combined net income is £35,000. She says:

The childcare infrastructure in Northern Ireland is archaic and a decade behind England or France, where we previously lived.

I’m currently working in IT due to a lack of jobs in teaching.

We made the decision to send our youngest to full-time childcare because we wanted to help him develop his social skills, which are crucial at his age.

It’s in a daycare nursery from 7.30am until 5.30pm. We pay £708 a month for that.

My other child goes to a childminder in the mornings and then she picks him up in the afternoons and I pick him up about 6pm. We use a childminder who lives 15 miles away from us and that costs £250 a month, paid throughout the year, including the summer, although it’s reduced to half.

I think there’s a total inequality of rights and it’s discrimination as you’re put under so much pressure to find quality childcare for your child.

You have to research it yourself to find the right one and make sure that the child fits in. All the costs are more or less the same. My husband does contractual work, so the amount of money coming in fluctuates and sometimes there can be a month when he isn’t bringing in anything. It is very hard financially.

I think childcare should be a State provision and I think there should be equality of opportunities for all children.

I have had good exposure to the different systems in England and Europe compared to Northern Ireland.

Children want to do after-school activities and it’s an absolute rip-off.

I could get a full year’s access to rugby for my child in France for €50 (£40), including his kit, but here it costs £150 for playing football once a week, plus we had to buy the kit.

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