Nearly seven million grandparents provide regular childcare for their grandchildren aged under 16, with the most popular reason being to allow the child’s parents to work, according to a new poll released today (Tuesday) by the TUC.

The YouGov poll –  published as part of the TUC’s Age Immaterial investigation into women over 50 in the workplace – shows that nearly three in five (58 per cent) grandparents provide regular childcare without the child’s parent or parents present, equivalent to nearly seven million grandparents across Britain.

The most popular reason grandparents gave for looking after their grandchildren, cited by 50 per cent, was to allow the child’s parents to work. This was the reason also given by 45 per cent of mums and dads with children under 16 who are looked after by their grandparents.

The informal care provided by millions of grandparents is saving working families thousands of pounds a year on costly nursery and childminding fees, as well as helping parents to stay in work and continue their careers, says the TUC.

The polling also shows that working grandparents are more likely (63 per cent) to look after their grandchildren than retired grandparents (55 per cent). While grandparents have always played an important role in looking after their grandchildren, the record number of people now working into their late 60s means that many are taking on childcare responsibilities for a second time while they are still working, says the TUC.

With the average weekly wage higher for people in their 30s (£468) than for those their 50s (£427.80) and 60s (£320.90), some families may feel it makes financial sense for a grandparent to reduce their hours and provide informal care, rather than or in addition to a parent in order to ease the pressure on childcare bills, says the TUC.

But while the childcare provided by grandparents is hugely important, the TUC believes that this function is often not recognised or understood by employers. Of working grandparents who have never taken time off work to care for grandchildren under 16, around one in ten have not been able to do so because they have either been refused time off by their employer (3 per cent), or simply felt that they weren’t able to ask (8 per cent).

Although many working grandparents play a key role in the care of their grandchildren, they are currently only entitled to take short periods of unpaid leave in an emergency. The TUC wants grandparents to have greater entitlement to unpaid leave so they can combine looking after their grandchildren with their jobs.

A new right to unpaid leave enjoys considerable support from both grandparents – 42 per cent support the policy, just 26 per cent oppose – and parents (50 per cent support, 21 per cent oppose). And the government has an opportunity to introduce unpaid leave for grandparents as the Children and Families Bill reaches its report stage in the House of Lords later today.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The informal childcare that millions of grandparents regularly provide is one of the most important and unheralded forms of care in Britain today.

“The childcare provided by grandparents allows mums and dads to work, saves them money on nursery and childminder fees, and creates a special bond across different generations in a family.

“But with more people than ever before working into their late 60s, millions of grandparents are selflessly taking on childcare responsibilities for a second time while they still work. Many businesses have yet to keep up with this trend and thousands of grandparents who want to look after their grandkids are prevented from doing so.

“It’s important that public policy catches up with the needs of working grandparents and their families. A new right to unpaid leave would be a great way to get more working grandparents involved in childcare, and at very little cost to an employer.”

Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus, Sam Smethers said: “Family life is changing and it’s time that government and employers caught up.

“Grandparents are picking up the strain that families are under and providing an increasing amount of childcare. But they are under pressure themselves, working longer and struggling to combine paid work with caring.

“We risk a ‘childcare gap’ emerging – with parents paying the price – if grandparents cannot afford to reduce their hours or can’t get the flexibility they need.  The solution is a period of grandparental leave and an investment in formal childcare.”