Monday 27 October 2014 2:06 pm

Helen Archer, and why the cost of childcare is crippling women’s careers

When I was a child, Radio 4 was permanently on in the kitchen, and I still listen to it at every opportunity.  I have never been a great fan of the Archers, but it has been a constant in my life, despite the banal story lines.  
One of the current dramas in Ambridge involves Helen Archer. Having conceived a son through a sperm donor, she recently decided to give up work to stay at home and look after him.
Helen’s departure from the workplace provided the women of Ambridge with a cue to question whether a career woman should give up her job to look after a toddler at home.  I became a mother 28 years ago and this has been a familiar debate among my friends for much of that time.  My strong view is that if a woman can afford to give up work and she feels it is best for her family to do so, that is what she should do.  
Many women fear if they take a career break, it will be impossible to return at a later date, and it certainly has proved difficult for those of my friends who tried to come back into the City after several years at home to do so. 
Those who have succeeded in returning have frequently had to take jobs at a significantly lower rate of pay than they had when they left, and they often never recover their position within the hierarchy.  
Others have sought to keep a foot in the door by working part-time while dealing with very small children and then moving back up to full-time work when the children are all at school.  That has proved to be a better strategy.
But the biggest difficulty for all working woman is childcare.  The cost is exorbitant and has to be paid out of net pay. 
Tony Blair promised to consider making childcare a tax-deductible expense for mothers when he came to power in 1997, but this was stamped on by the Treasury mandarins when the cost to the Exchequer was calculated.  
This means many women are working for nothing, when the cost of childcare and travelling to work are paid out of their net pay, but many take the view it is better to take the financial hit and keep climbing the career ladder.  One of Helen Archer’s arguments for giving up work was that all she earned was going on nursery costs, and this is a familiar refrain from the women I know who work.
Nearly 60 per cent of women with children continue to work, and so the childcare issue is one we urgently need to address.  
As we approach the election, this is something that must be given a higher priority in the political debate.  It is not just about cost, but also about ensuring there is sufficient good-quality childcare available.  Our children are Britain’s future and we must ensure they get the best possible start in life.