A recent event in parliament on the need for greater support for parents was told not to expect much change soon.
The Government is unlikely to make any major changes on childcare, parental leave or flexible working in the near future, a business minister told a group of campaigners at a recent event in Parliament.
Although Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said the discussion, Sharing the juggle: Do we need a radical rethink of how we support parents?, organised by John Lewis Partnership at Westminister, was ‘timely’ while Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said the Prime Minister has shown a “renewed interest” in childcare as he tries to move away from the fallout from Partygate, there was little in the way of concrete policies. Scully said there would not be much change quickly due to the Covid backlog and added that whatever was proposed had to work for smaller businesses with fewer resources than the corporates.
He said Shared Parental Leave is being reviewed and would be promoted more with an online tool in development to help people understand their rights in relation to it. This was despite campaigners saying that SPL has failed to work. Elliott Rae, founder of MusicFootballFatherhood.com, would like to see paid paternity leave of two to three months. “The concept of sharing leave doesn’t work,” said Elliott. “So many dads don’t want to take the leave away from their partner.”
Scully also said that the government wants to showcase what the best employers are doing and bring up the statutory minimum and is working on ‘employment measures and flexible working’. He said that Will Quince MP is reviewing how to make childcare less expensive in the UK, recognising that it is one of the most expensive systems among developed economies. Asked if Quince’s review will be limited to childcare ratios, he said they would play a part, but would ‘not be the only part’.
Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed spoke of the ‘historical roll back’ on gender equality since Covid, citing a Sunday Times story on ONS figures on the rise in women becoming economically inactive as a result of looking after family or home. She said there were hundreds of thousands of parents who wanted to work but were prevented by the system. That requires government to prioritise action to help families, including reforming parental leave to include extended ringfenced and properly funded paternity leave, making all jobs flexible by default and providing universal free childcare, she said. She added that Canada has just brought in a policy which means parents pay just $10 a day for childcare on the basis that it is good for the economy. She stated that the current childcare system in the UK is “a terrible sticking plaster” solution which means that more mums opt out of using it at all and she said that childcare staff are very stressed and are ‘leaving in their droves’. She cited anecdotal evidence of parents foregoing meals because childcare costs are so high.
Rae also called for more flexible working by default, more role modelling of flexible working by senior leaders and for greater support for parents, for instance, through employee networks for parents. He is doing a lot of work on highlighting best practice for dads, but said if there is no fundamental change in government policy it will not be effective. He added that there is a need for a more intersectional approach given that lots of parents are not even in the conversation and called for more employers to be engaged. This was echoed by an audience member who spoke of the need for a culture change for everyone, including those in insecure, low paid jobs who can’t work from home.
Caroline Nokes said the minister for early years had recognised that Shared Parental Leave can put a strain on parents and that men don’t want to take leave away from their partner and she expressed concern that increasing the number of children a childcare professional can look after seems to shift the onus for the childcare problem onto childcare providers. “That is not where it should be,” she stated. She added later that she was “really disappointed” not to see the Employment Bill, which would have provided more protections for parents and carers and extended flexible working rights, included in the Queen’s Speech.
From an employer perspective, Nina Bhatia, Executive Director, Strategy and Commercial Development at John Lewis Partnership, said policies need to adapt to the different stages in children’s lives and to enable greater choice for parents. Since JLP brought in its flexible first policy for job adverts it had seen a 50% uplift in the number of people applying for its roles. She said people can now see themselves in roles they would never have considered before. JLP has also seen a small increase in retention as a result of its new equal parental leave policy brought in last year and the first such policy by a UK retail business. “It makes good business sense,” she stated.
Vivien Waterfield, Deputy CEO of Home-Start, a local community network of trained volunteers and expert support helping families with young children, spoke of the need for more mentoring support for mums returning to work after maternity leave and said mental health and the cost of living challenges were very high priorities for families at the moment.