An election for working parents?

Labour and the Lib Dems have launched policies aimed at helping working parents. Are they what parents want?

Organised working mum


In a general election which is very difficult to call, the working parent vote is likely to be vital. So it was that Labour jumped in ahead of the rest on Friday with its pledge to extend Statutory Maternity Pay and to make it compulsory for larger employers to have a menopause policy and to publish action plans on bridging the gender pay gap. There was also a promise to make flexible working a day one right [currently employees have to wait 26 weeks before requesting it] and a commitment to challenge employers who don’t offer it.

Labour was swiftly followed by the Lib Dems who focused on childcare, saying they would enable working parents to get 35 hours of free childcare for 48 weeks of the year from when their children hit nine months, bridging the current gap between the end of paid statutory maternity pay and preschool. Currently, it is three and four year olds who qualify for 30 hours free childcare during term time if parents meet certain eligibility criteria. If they don’t meet the criteria, children qualify for 15 hours of free childcare during term time [38 weeks]. Some lower income two year olds also qualify for 15 hours of free childcare.

Labour also announced plans on childcare, including 30 hours per week of free care to all children aged between two and four and a pledge to open a Sure Start children’s centre in every community.

The cost of childcare is one of the biggest barriers working parents face so any move on that must be welcome.

Many parents struggle to pay childcare from when they return to work to when the subsidised childcare kicks in. I recall literally counting down the hours until the three and four year old childcare kicked in, even if it was only 15 hours back in the day.

Childcare costs are a big cause of women in particular dropping out of work or radically reducing their hours or choosing to work in different ways, such as opting for self employment so they can work around their children. That has a huge long-term impact on their lifetime income and on their pension and, of course, on the gender pay gap.

Often parents have more than one child who they are paying out childcare for, with costs accounting for all or most of any income they could make. When you factor in the stress of commuting, nursery fines if you don’t get back in time, hostile working environments and so forth, it seems highly ironic that parents who continue to work often feel that their ‘commitment’ is questioned.

Of course, any increase in ‘free’ childcare has to be fully funded. We’ve seen the impact of a failure to fully fund care on nurseries over the last few years – extra charges, closures or threats of closures of childcare facilities and so forth. So let’s see the smallprint first.

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Maternity pay

Menopause policies and forcing companies to publish action plans on the gender pay gap are clearly necessary in the move towards greater inclusion, transparency and equality at work.

Then we come to maternity pay. Is extending the current low rate of maternity pay to 12 months the best way to support families in the early months? Many women are forced back to work much earlier than nine months precisely because the rate of SMP is so low. Would it not be better to cap maternity pay and give everyone a higher amount? And why does Labour continue to assume childcare is only about women? There is no mention in their announcement of paternity pay. If dads could afford to take more time off that would help mums and establish sharing care from the off.

Flexible working

Then there is flexible working. Day one flex is something would welcome. So is a “presumption in favour of flexible work”. Labour says it will make employers who cannot offer the requested hours have to explain why. This seems basically to be inverting the current legislation on flexible working. This puts emphasis on the employee making a business case for flexibility. Under Labour’s plan the onus will be on employers to show why flex won’t work.

Nevertheless, the proof of the pudding is in the wording of the legislation and employers’ get-out clauses. Under the current flexible working legislation there are eight given reasons that employers can use to turn down flexible working.

Those reason are incredibly vague. There is no statutory right of appeal and I have asked employment lawyers over the years if they know of any cases where an employer has been found to have breached the law. No-one I have spoken to knows of any case where flexible working legislation alone has resulted in a decision being overturned. Yet our surveys show not only that many parents are still having flexible working turned down. Interestingly, many are being turned down for reasons not allowed under the legislation which highlights the importance of having a right to appeal.

While a presumption of flexibility is clearly a good thing, it is enforcement that matters and that requires resources. HR people who do challenge line managers over inflexible job descriptions handed to them by recruiting managers have to essentially unpick the job and educate managers about why flexibility widens the talent pool and gets them better workers.

Labour says they will have union equality reps on the ground who will promote equality, diversity and inclusion, which is good for those employers where there is union representation. What about those who don’t?

Even weak legislation can be important in changing attitudes, however. Take Shared Parental Leave. It is arguably more important for the debates it has opened up about sharing care than for its implementation.

What it can do is set the tone, make it clear that we expect flexible working to be the norm. That is all very good and good employers will run with it [and many are already ahead of it]. It is how we reach the rest and offer them the support and encouragement they need, the carrot as well as the stick of new legislation, that is the hard part.

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