Northern Ireland '40 years behind Europe in childcare strategy'
Northern Ireland's exorbitant childcare costs must be addressed urgently, it has been claimed.
The warning comes after the UK Government pledged to double free early education for three to four year olds in England from 15 hours a week to 30 by 2017.
Here, they are only entitled to 12.5 hours a week, which will not change under the new proposals.
But parents say the local system - prices can amount to around £10,000 a year for just one child - is unsustainable.
Indeed, some mothers and fathers have had to give up work because of the crippling costs.
Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, Northern Ireland's largest organisation for young children, welcomed the move to 30 hours of free childcare in England and urged local politicans to act quickly. "We don't have a system which encourages working parents," she said.
"This move in England will help working parents, but it would also help parents who want to get off benefits and go to work.
"What we need here is a Childcare Strategy.
"We are 11 years behind the rest of the UK and Ireland and four decades behind Europe in terms of developing a childcare strategy.
"We are asking the Executive to act as a matter of urgency before any more parents have to give up work because of the punitive cost of childcare."
Research reveals that the average cost of full-time care for one child in Northern Ireland is £162 per week - or £8,400 annually.
A full-time day nursery place costs on average £156 per week, while a full-time place in a childminding setting costs £167, says the charity Employers for Childcare.
For almost 30% of families, childcare costs were the biggest bill they faced each month, eclipsing even mortgage or rent payments.
Marie Marin, chief executive officer of Employers For Childcare charitable group, called for a robust childcare strategy to tackle these cost issues.
"The biggest problem we have in Northern Ireland is the continued absence of a childcare strategy, to both tackle the affordability and availability of flexible childcare, which would support the economic growth we all strive for," she said.
"We call on the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) to make the publication of such a strategy a priority."
Employers For Childcare supports parents in work and has been publishing annual surveys on childcare costs for five years now.
The 2014 survey found some variation in childcare prices across Northern Ireland.
It suggested that the highest childminding cost was £173 a week for one child and the lowest was £136 a week.
Meanwhile, the highest weekly cost for a day nursery place was £163 a week and the lowest was £136.
A spokeswoman for OFMDFM said the Executive's strategy on childcare is due to go out to consultation in the next few weeks.
"The Executive will monitor developments in other jurisdictions as we move forward with the strategy," she said.
"We have already announced 15 key actions under the Bright Start Framework, targeted at supporting affordable childcare and reducing costs to parents. We will continue to build on this."
Economist John Simpson said the cost of childcare was an issue which was "pretty standard" across the whole of the UK, therefore: "A childcare policy should be the same for all UK regions."