The Queen’s Speech didn’t have a whole lot for working families. There was nothing much on childcare, nothing concrete on social care for those in the sandwich generation and no Employment Bill.
I always search the Queen’s Speech for anything that is relevant to working parents and over the last few years there has been precious little related to, for instance, childcare. Childcare is absolutely central to the lives of many working parents of young children – its cost, its availability, its flexibility. Childcare providers have for years been crying out for additional funding to boost the shortfall in funding for supposedly free childcare places for three and four year olds – a lifeline for many parents.
I recall counting down the days until my son could increase his hours at nursery due to the ‘free’ childcare. Before that he was mainly doing half days and I was “working around him” the rest of the time – and I think we know from the last year that that is no walk in the park.
For many parents the ‘free’ childcare arrives just at the point they have a second child and are staring down the barrell of double the childcare costs – even back in the day when my two oldest daughters were at nursery the figure was well over one thousand pounds a month and they weren’t even attending full time. It barely made sense for my partner to work [I was the main earner] except that, in the long term, dropping out often has a much larger long-term impact on income because, for many, it is hard to get back to work on anything approaching your former salary.
But ‘free’ childcare has been a nightmare for many childcare providers because the money the Government gives them doesn’t meet the cost of childcare provision, meaning they are running constantly at a loss and have to use funding from other parts of the business – which frequently means increased childcare costs for parents of younger children – to subsidise those places or not offer them.
So I wait every time the Queen speaks to hear something on childcare, even more so this past year when we know many standalone childcare providers are on the brink or have indeed been forced to close. So what did we get this time around? This statement is all I could see: “Measures will be brought forward to ensure that children have the best start in life, prioritising their early years. My ministers will address lost learning during the pandemic and ensure every child has a high quality education and is able to fulfil their potential.”
Sounds promising, perhaps, if fairly opaque. But is it about childcare or school catch-up money? It looks likely that it could be the latter rather than the former. Calling for “a significant uplift in the amount of recovery funding afforded to under-fives”, the Early Years Alliance says: “The government has made clear its intention to provide greater support to new parents and children in the first 1,001 days, but if we are ever to close the disadvantage gap and ensure that all children are given the best possible start in life, ministers must also commit to ensuring that early education providers are given the funding they need to deliver affordable, sustainable, high-quality care and education over the long term.”
There was also a vague reference in the Queen’s Speech to women’s rights, but, although welcome, it looks likely that this will not be employment-related, even though the short- and potential long-term impact of Covid on women’s employment has been highlighted by many.
Another noticeable absence was any concrete plans for adult social care – will it be women, unpaid as usual, who are expected to cover over the cracks in the meantime? And then there’s the Employment Bill, in part based on the Government’s interpretation of Matthew Taylor’s report on modern working and first announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech. This was due to cover a range of workers’ rights issues, including the introduction of a single labour market enforcement body to ensure that vulnerable workers are better informed of their rights and to support businesses in compliance, a new right to request a more predictable and stable contract after 26 weeks’ service, the extension of redundancy protection for pregnant employees and a right to neonatal leave and to unpaid carers’ leave.
Many of these issues around rights – crucially, enforcement of rights – and quality of work are critical for working parents, particularly women, and have become more so in the wake of Covid-19.
It is surely worrying that the Queen’s Speech seems to be more newsworthy due to what it doesn’t say than what it does.