There was a lot of focus on parental leave in the last days of May-ism, but childcare is what is on many parents’ minds as we approach the long summer holidays.
So we have a new Prime Minister. It was interesting to note the flurry of activity, a lot of it around parental leave, in the dying days of Mayism. Last Friday came a new consultation on parental leave for the parents of premature babies and at the end of yesterday a press release on extending redundancy protection for those returning from parental leave. Just before all of this, the idea of 12 weeks’ paternity leave was floated as part of May’s ‘legacy’. It’s as if May knows that the new Government will place a very low priority on any of this stuff so she had to get it out before she left office.
It will be down to the rest of us to use the promises of consultations and taskforces and legislation to drive things forward, but I fear it will be very much an uphill battle. On the other hand, the Lib Dems have just elected as leader one of the key architects of Shared Parental Leave who is likely to try to keep this high on the political agenda, even as we fall ever deeper into the Brexit quagmire. I remember going to a meeting at a government department near the beginning of this whole thing. The sense that it was more about treading water and ‘communicating’ existing policies was palpable. Not that communication is an unimportant thing because too few people understand their rights, as the countless emails we receive show.
Of course, parental leave is important, but it is just one part of a very big jigsaw. As parents prepare for the summer holiday marathon, many of them will be focused on finding their own sticking plaster solutions to childcare, involving an array of relatives, friends and favours, maybe even changing house/jobs etc, or, if they are lucky, they will have empathetic employers who can help in the absence of other affordable, available options. Because, frankly, the Government is failing on childcare.
Its two big childcare policies – tax-free childcare and the 30-hours policy for three and four year olds [which doesn’t cover the holidays] – are simply not good enough. Children are three to four for just one year of their lives. Moreover, there is evidence that the 30-hour policy is benefiting wealthier, middle class parents over those who need affordable childcare most, drawing money away from free childcare for disadvantaged two year olds. Tax-free childcare has had limited success, mainly because it is so complicated and requires upfront payments. Meanwhile, other childcare policies such as tax credits have faced cuts.
My eldest daughter is now 19. I have spent 19 years trying to find affordable [and, when I have been self employed, flexible] childcare. I am fortunate because I can work from home and have been able to freelance. That means I can work around my kids’ holidays and my mum lives relatively near and has put in sterling work over the years. Even so, it’s not easy. None of this is and it is exhausting. It is ridiculous that a country can’t get itself together to prioritise the care of its children and that childcare is not more central to the political agenda.
I know, you know, we all know, that there will be many children who will be left at home on their own this summer, quite possibly with little or nothing in the way of nutrition. It is simply not acceptable that we are willing to put the safety, well being and health of future generations at risk in this way. We will, of course, find some way to individualise this and pin it all on the parents, but without feasible options what can they do?
Parents have got the message loud and clear – we are more or less on our own. Unfortunately, at a time when our economic stability as a nation looks very precarious, things are unlikely to get better any time soon so all we can do is to help each other. In the 1980s, we were told that there is no such thing as society, something that appealed to those who have never needed help, support, advice or even just a friend. In the absence of effective government help, we must reinvigorate society.