Many women leave the labour market or cut their working hours after having children because childcare facilities are either unavailable, too expensive or simply inadequate, say Professor Colette Fagan and Dr Helen Norman.

Childcare is now at the forefront of the political debate. Indeed last week’s Budget only served to emphasise how high up the agenda the issue has become as the government trumpeted how, from next September, working parents would be given up to £2,000 per child, per year, to ease the cost of childcare, up from an original figure of £1,200.

Following the launch of the 1998 National Childcare Strategy the UK has made important strides in expanding childcare. A significant proportion of pre-school children are now in formal childcare, although most of this is part-time.

But shortfalls in supply, affordability, quality and flexibility remain and the UK has one of the highest costs for childcare in Europe. Meanwhile problems are compounded by the fact that out-of-school services are limited, and the qualification levels of the childcare workforce are generally low compared to many other EU countries.

The end result, as our research has shown, is that many women leave the labour market or reduce their employment hours after having children because childcare facilities are simply unavailable, too expensive or inadequate.

As Lucy Powell MP, the shadow minister for childcare (and incidentally Manchester’s first female MP) told a seminar that we hosted earlier this month with the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), we are in the middle of what she describes as a “childcare crunch”.

She said that childcare prices had risen exponentially and become a prohibitive barrier to many families. Yet at the same time the childcare component of tax credits had shrunk. She said: “We have increased costs, fewer places and are cutting support, and this is having a direct impact on the economy. I call it the motherhood penalty, the penalty for having children. Women come out of the labour market and invariably go back to work with shorter hours, lower pay and a lower status job.”

Lucy Powell made the point that childcare should be seen as part of the wider infrastructure required for an economy to grow. Women were struggling to fund their childcare so they were not accessing the jobs that they could be. She added that the sheer complexity of the tax and benefits system didn’t help either. “Most parents have no idea what they are entitled to, it is really unclear. They end up asking themselves ‘am I better off taking more hours at work or is it even worth going back to work at all?’”

A recent IPPR report backed up these views. It found that for the vast majority of women the key barrier to working more hours was the prohibitive cost of childcare. It concluded that up to half a million more mothers could be in work if childcare was cheaper and more flexible. It said childcare costs had risen by 77% over the past decade with a part-time nursery place now costing more than £100 a week.

At the same time the number of nurseries offering full-day care has halved since 2008, leading the report to conclude that the UK’s record on employing mothers had fallen behind many other countries.

Our own ongoing research complements these and other studies. In particular, as well as advising the International Labour Organisation on working-time policy to promote work-life balance and gender equality, we are part of the European Commission’s Network group on gender equality and employment with childcare expansion an important wider objective in EU employment and gender equality policy.

One of the key targets is to raise Europe’s employment rate to 75% by creating more and better jobs, particularly for women. To achieve that, access to childcare and flexible working are absolutely essential.

Moreover, while the provision of affordable and quality childcare is crucial, it is also important to improve other measures that include flexible work arrangements, opportunities for good quality part-time employment, and a system of flexible and well-remunerated parental leave. These measures need to be designed in ways that enable men as well as women to adjust their work schedules and take a more equal share in looking after children and other family members.

Affordable and good quality out-of-school services are just as important as pre-school childcare if we are to help parents find a better match between their working hours and the school hours of their children, and hence support their employment and quality of life.

Another important part of this debate is the supply side. During our seminar there was a frank debate about whether the government should ultimately be paying providers or parents to help solve the crisis. Last week’s Budget would appear to signal that the government wants parents to have that choice, but Lucy Powell said it should be a combination of both.

On the one side it is important for the actual cost of childcare to be sufficient to resource good quality services and better pay and working conditions for childcare workers, however the actual price needs to be lower in order for parents to be able to afford it.

Precisely who will fill this gap will remain an important area of policy debate for whoever wins the next election.

Children and parental choice must not be overlooked in this debate. Do all mothers really want to combine employment with looking after their children? If so, do they prefer part-time or full-time jobs? What arrangements are best for different households?

Therein lies another whole debate, but the truth at present is that many mothers simply don’t have these choices to make.