Urgent action needed to quell rise in pregnancy and maternity discrimination

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Camilla, pregnant and until very recently working 30 hours per week as a hotel cleaner on a zero-hours contract, contacted the Working Families legal helpline earlier this year after being summarily dismissed for taking time off work due to a pregnancy-related illness. The helpline team considered Camilla to have a strong claim for unlawful pregnancy-related dismissal, but she was unwilling to risk up to £1,200 of her savings on issuing and pursuing a tribunal claim. Not without difficulty, Camilla had managed to save just over £3,000 to cover the extra expense she knew would come with having a baby – not least because she would receive only the statutory rate of maternity pay while on maternity leave. And those savings meant that Camilla was ineligible for any remission of the fees.

Year after year, the Working Families legal helpline team deals with dozens of such cases. And, in recent years, the team have sensed that such unlawful treatment of new and expectant mothers at work is becoming both more common, and more blatant. Now, the first findings of a £1 million, joint research study by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – the largest ever study of its kind – suggests such discrimination is indeed more widespread than ever.

The 18-month research study – launched by the then minister for women and equalities, Maria Miller MP, in October 2013 – included interviews with 3,034 employers, and with 3,254 mothers of a child aged between nine and 24 months who had worked during pregnancy. This provides a robust evidence base on the scale and nature of the discrimination experienced by women, and on employer attitudes and approaches to managing pregnancy, maternity leave, and return to work.

The key BIS/EHRC research findings

Despite more than four in five of the more than 3,000 employers surveyed agreeing that it is in the interests of their business to support pregnant employees and those on maternity leave, and a similar proportion considering the statutory legal rights relating to pregnancy and maternity to be both reasonable and easy to implement, the BIS/EHRC research study found that:

  • Unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is now more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before, with as many as 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers – one in nine – forced out of their job each year. This is almost twice the figure of 30,000 suggested by similar (but less robust) research undertaken a decade ago by the then Equal Opportunities Commission.
  • Single mothers, and younger mothers (under 25), are at particular risk, especially during pregnancy and maternity leave.
  • Women working in adult social care, childcare, hairdressing and other service occupations are most likely to experience unfavourable treatment during pregnancy. In these sectors, hundreds of thousands of women are employed on zero-hours contracts and other forms of precarious employment that offer little in the way of guaranteed hours or job security.
  • One in 12 of the women who had attended a job interview while pregnant reported being asked during interview whether they were pregnant, and a shocking one in four of the employers surveyed (wrongly) believe that it is reasonable to ask women candidates about their plans to have children.
  • One in 10 of the women surveyed said they were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments, and one in nine reported being encouraged to start maternity leave earlier than they wanted to.
  • Two in five of women said they would have liked to work more flexibly upon return from maternity leave, but did not ask to do so as they were concerned it would not be approved or that it would result in negative consequences.
  • Only one in 12 of those women who raised a concern about their treatment at work obtained legal advice from an external advice provider such as a law centre or CAB.

A clear need for urgent government action

Final BIS/EHRC research reports will be published later this year, alongside EHRC recommendations for policy action by government, but it is already clear that ministers need to take prompt, robust and effective action to ensure job security for all working women during pregnancy and maternity leave. Working Families and our partners in the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination – including the Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, the NCT, the TUC, and the Royal College of Midwives – believe this must include:

  • The BIS/EHRC research confirms what Working Families and others have been saying for many years: that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is both widespread and deeply entrenched, with a significant minority of employers holding outdated and wholly inappropriate attitudes. This is bad for women and their families, bad for gender equality, and bad for the economy.
  • Ministers sending a strong message to employers that there is simply no excuse to flout the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
  • Developing a strong, high-profile information campaign aimed at improving both women’s awareness of their rights, and employers’ understanding of their legal obligations and the business benefits of ‘doing the right thing’.
  • Delivering a significant injection of funding into the specialist information and advice services that pregnant women and new mothers clearly need to help protect their rights at work.
  • Improving women’s access to justice, including by scrapping the employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 introduced in July 2013. It is now abundantly clear that these fees amount to nothing less than a charter for dinosaur and rogue employers (see our recent submission to the Justice select committee’s ongoing inquiry into the impact of the fees).
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Access to justice: review of employment tribunal fees

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Martha was nearing the end of maternity leave from her part-time job as a receptionist when she contacted the Working Families legal helpline. Her employer had suddenly demanded that she return to work full-time, in the full knowledge that Martha was unable to do so due to the childcare arrangements for her baby’s older sister. Martha was convinced that this was a ruse to force her to resign, enabling the employer to retain her maternity cover, who was willing and able to work full-time.

The helpline adviser talked Martha through the options for challenging her employer, warning that – given the employer’s actions and intransigence to date – it seemed unlikely that Martha would achieve resolution without issuing an employment tribunal claim.

However, when the adviser explained this would involve paying an issue fee of £250 and – if the claim was not then settled by the employer – a hearing fee of £950, Martha was adamant this was not a practicable option: “I simply don’t have that sort of money – I’ve just been on maternity leave!”

Martha is one of more than 40,000 mistreated or exploited workers who appear to have come to much the same conclusion since 29 July 2013, when the fees came into force. For more than 40 years, the employment tribunal system had provided an invaluable backstop in disputes between individual workers and their employer – a legal remedy of last resort – as well as a more general incentive to employers to ‘get it right first time’.  But in August 2013 the number of new tribunal cases fell off a cliff, and has not recovered since.

In the six months up to 31 March 2014, new cases were down 62 per cent on the same period in 2012-13, from 30,095 to 11,508. Cases involving a claim for unfair dismissal were down by 64 per cent, those involving alleged sex discrimination by 80 per cent, and those involving an equal pay claim by 84 per cent.

However, it was never the stated intention of ministers to bring about any reduction in case numbers, let alone a fall of such proportions. As confirmed by the new government’s recent announcement of a long-promised review of the impact of fees, the original aims were simply to:

  • transfer some of the cost from the taxpayer to those who use the service, where they can afford to do so;
  • encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution services, for example, ACAS conciliation; and
  • improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the tribunal.

Furthermore, these objectives were to be achieved “while maintaining access to justice”.

Measured against these stated aims, the fees cannot be seen as any great policy success. In 2014-15, net income from fees (after remission and administrative costs) was just £4.3 million – less than half the £10 million that, in 2012, the Ministry of Justice predicted fees would generate each year, and a relatively insignificant sum in terms of the Ministry’s total net expenditure of some £7.5 billion. (There have of course been more substantial operational cost savings due to the two-thirds fall in case numbers, but such savings were never an officially stated aim of fees).

Early conciliation by Acas is in fact mandatory for all would-be tribunal claimants, who therefore need no ‘encouragement’ from fees to use the service. And it is very hard to see how fees could, by themselves, improve the “efficiency and effectiveness” of the tribunal process – other than by eradicating a large part of the caseload, of course. Any increased incentive for claimants to settle their claim early (so as not to have to pay the hearing fee) will almost certainly have been balanced out by respondent employers waiting to see if the claimant is willing to pay the fee. And, in any case, the proportion of cases that go to a hearing has always been small (about 20 per cent), so any net impact of the fees on such ‘user behaviour’ will have been marginal at best.

So there is really no need to have established a formal review to judge the fees regime against its original objectives. The review’s terms of reference suggest that Ministry officials will spend more time trying to identify and substantiate any factor – other than the deterrent effect of such prohibitively high fees – that might possibly have contributed to the massive fall in case numbers since July 2013. These include an alleged “historic downward trend” in case numbers – a downward trend that ministers seemingly failed to spot in late 2011 and 2012, when they announced and consulted on their proposed fees regime – as well as the impact from “the improvement in the economy”, “changes to employment law”, and “changes in users’ behaviour”.

However, it is already beyond doubt that such factors do not explain the sharp fall in case numbers from late July 2013. For the only significant (and relevant) change to employment law is the above-mentioned introduction of mandatory early conciliation of all potential tribunal claims by Acas, which did not happen until May 2014. And, while there was a gradual decline in case numbers prior to the introduction of fees, quite possibly linked to improvement in the economy, that decline was relatively modest. From the second quarter of 2012/13 to the first quarter of 2013/14 – the last full quarter before fees – the number of single claims/cases declined by just five per cent.

The ‘historic downward trend’ and ‘early conciliation by Acas’

As the following chart shows, even after factoring in both this modest downward trend  and the introduction of Acas early conciliation – which was intended to bring about a 17 per cent reduction in tribunal case numbers – in May 2014, there remains a substantial difference between the number of single cases we could have expected to see in each quarter, had fees not been introduced, and the actual number of such cases.

ETproj

In fact, even after (generously) allowing for these two factors, there were still some 36,200 single cases ‘lost’ to fees, as of 31 March 2015. And, as that number continues to increase by more than 1,500 every month, it is now in excess of 40,000.

Changes in users’ behaviour

There are two potential “changes in users’ behaviour” that might possibly account for some of this missing 40,000 single claims/cases by individual workers:

  • deciding to issue the claim in the County Court, where issue and hearing fees are lower, instead of in the employment tribunal; and
  • deciding not to issue a ‘weak’ or ‘unfounded’ claim.

It is certainly possible that some single claims/cases have been displaced to the County Court. However, all but a few types of claim can only be brought in the tribunal and – while there is anecdotal evidence of some large multiple claimant cases now being brought in the civil courts instead of the tribunal – there is so far no evidence of any significant displacement of single claims/cases.

Although never an officially stated aim of the fees, deterring allegedly “vexatious” or otherwise weak or unfounded claims is the one measure by which some ministers have claimed ‘success’ for the policy of introducing fees. In late 2014, the then Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, told the Yorkshire Post that, in introducing fees, the Coalition government was “trying to deal with a situation where it was too easy to go to a tribunal and where employers, often good employers, were easy prey for questionable claims”. And, earlier in 2014, then BIS minister Matt Hancock told the Daily Telegraph that the massive fall in cases demonstrated how “tens of thousands of dishonest workers have been squeezing the life out of businesses with bogus employment tribunal claims for discrimination and harassment”.

However, if all or even just many of the more than 40,000 single claims/cases ‘lost’ to fees since July 2013 were simply “bogus claims for discrimination and harassment” with little if any chance of success, then the overall success rate would by now have risen towards 100%. In fact, as the following chart shows, the success rate has fallen steadily in recent quarters, from 79% in 2013/14, to just 62% in the last quarter of 2014/15. This tends to confirm the view of experienced practitioners that, by and large, it is the ‘high merit but low value’ claims by relatively low income workers that have been deterred by the disproportionately high fees.

outcomes for DB

Does any of this matter? Well, clearly it does if you’re one of the more than 40,000 mistreated or exploited workers who have been priced out of justice since July 2013. But it also matters if you think law-abiding employers deserve a level-playing field on which to compete with their business rivals. The employment tribunal system is intended to ensure a more equal power relationship between the most vulnerable workers and their employers, without which – in the words of Winston Churchill more than a century ago – the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst.

Thank to the fees introduced in July 2013, UK employers now risk facing a tribunal claim just once every century, on average. And that is simply a charter for Britain’s worst employers. A government that truly champions business cannot allow this state of affairs to continue.

Getting flexible about flexible working

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

British workers want flexible working – but only 6% of job ads offer it.

So ran the headline in the Guardian earlier this month, as it reported new research by the Timewise consultancy revealing that more than 14 million British workers – almost half the working population – would like (more)  flexibility in their working hours or location. Yet, despite advances in technology and substantial changes in how and were people work, analysis by Timewise of 3.5 million UK-based job vacancies found that less than one in ten of advertised new jobs offer both decent pay and the opportunity to work flexibly.

The research found that the proportion of jobs advertised with flexible working options varies considerably between regions, from sector to sector, and depending on the job role. Candidates looking for a flexible job have relatively greater opportunities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England, while jobs within the engineering, manufacturing and creative industries rank the lowest in terms of flexible working options.

Urging employers to “use the F-word” when designing new job roles and advertising vacancies, co-author and Timewise CEO Karen Mattison said:

The world of work has experienced a revolution – technological advances and recent legislation [such as the right to request flexible working] have facilitated a huge growth in flexible working, yet this has not been reflected in in hiring practices. Businesses are missing out, as they consistently fail to realise just how how important flexibility is to people looking for a new role. It’s time to reboot the way we recruit in Britain.

Here at Working Families, we couldn’t agree more. Despite great progress in both the law and employer best practice, negative assumptions about flexible and family-friendly working persist. Reduced-hours working is heavily gendered and all too often viewed by managers as a lack of commitment, with senior roles and flexible working wrongly held to be incompatible. As a result, and as highlighted previously on this blog, there are simply too few good quality part-time or otherwise flexible, putting single parents and parents of disabled children at particular disadvantage. Furthermore, as recent research by think tank IPPR has concluded, the “concentration of part-time work outside of high-level jobs may increase the tendency for women to work in occupations below their skill level”.

That is why, during the General Election campaign, we urged all the political parties to increase the supply of good quality, flexible jobs by adopting a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector. This would ensure that all jobs in central and local government are advertised on a flexible basis unless there is a specific, good business reason not to. Camden Council and others are already blazing a trail in this regard, demonstrating how flexible working can “help solve problems of family worklessness as well as improve workforce performance and efficiency”.

We also suggested that new ministers should act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and that they should encourage private sector employers to ‘use the F-word’ from the outset by adopting our Happy to talk flexible working logo and strapline in their recruitment process.

HappyToTalk

The logo and strapline are the result of work by the Promoting Flexible Working to Private Sector Employers Working Group (PSWG) for the Department for Work & Pensions . Led by Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families, the PSWG brought together employer bodies, the TUC and recruiters to find practical ways of delivering cultural change, outside the legislative process.

Too few jobs are advertised flexibly, and we know that employers who only advertise their vacancies on a full-time basis may be fishing from a very narrow talent pool. The strapline is intended to encourage employers to think about job design and flexibility before recruitment, and to give potential applicants the confidence to ask about alternative work patters at the selection stage.

We realise that putting a logo on a job ad isn’t the whole story. So we’ve also produced some simple guidance about job design to help employers consider what the job really needs and what type of flexible working might work best.

But being Happy to Talk is a great start!

Unfrozen: a hollow victory for new parents?

In this guest post, Abi Wood of NCT argues that the Government has to do more for new parents than simply exempt maternity and parental pay from its benefits freeze.

Politicians usually love to talk about families, and their commitment to supporting them. After all, who isn’t in favour of motherhood and apple pie? But, unusually, there wasn’t a single mention of working families in last week’s Queen’s Speech.

Rumours had been circulating about where the £12 billion of cuts in welfare spending would fall, causing concern that they could hit new parents by reducing benefits such as statutory maternity and paternity pay. So you might expect charities that support new parents, such as NCT, to be relieved by the news that, while the rates of most working-age benefits will indeed be frozen for two years from 2016-17 under the Full Employment & Welfare Benefits Bill, statutory maternity, paternity, shared parental leave and adoption pay will be exempted.

But this simply isn’t good enough. Parents taking time away from work to raise the next generation currently receive a shockingly low £138 per week in statutory parental pay. That is almost £100 less than they would receive if they were working full-time on the minimum wage. And anyone who’s spent time with a baby knows that looking after them takes more than 40 hours a week.

On top of this, maternity and paternity pay has been losing value for the last few years. Since 2013, annual increases have been capped at one per cent, rather than going up in line with inflation. Research commissioned by NCT from the think-tank IPPR revealed that, as a result of this cap on annual increases, parents receive £224 less over their maternity or paternity leave. The study also showed that this cut hits the poorest fifth of families hardest.

Decently paid parental leave is vital to enable new mothers to recover from birth, and to enable both mothers and fathers to take time away from the workplace to bond and care for their new baby. The struggle to make ends meet increases the strain on families and can force parents to return to work before they are ready. One new mother told us: “I’m currently on leave but only able to take 14 weeks off as statutory pay is just not enough for me to pay the bills. This has affected everything, particularly not being able to breastfeed for as long as I would have liked to.”

So, while the Government might be expecting a positive reaction from the family sector for exempting maternity and parental pay from the freeze, they’re going to have to do a lot better than that. NCT will be campaigning for changes to help new parents, and we hope that next year’s Queen’s Speech will have some genuinely good news for them.

Abi Wood is Public Affairs Manager at NCT.

Queen’s Speech: not many promises, but plenty of challenges

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

With the general election fast becoming a distant memory, new ministers have been appointed, the House of Commons has returned to life, and the Conservative majority government has set out its legislative plans for the first year of its five-year term. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, last week’s Queen’s Speech somehow failed even to mention the ‘hard-working families’ of which we heard so much – from politicians of all parties – during the election campaign, with even the Childcare Bill (see below) set to help “working people”. So, what can we expect the new Government to deliver in terms of ‘families and work’ policy over the next few years?

The short answer, judging by the Conservative manifesto and ministerial pronouncements to date, is ‘probably not a lot’. The manifesto was disappointingly short on policy pledges that might help ensure work actually works for all families, with no reference at all to flexible or ‘family-friendly’ working, or the need to increase the supply of good quality part-time jobs. In contrast to both the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos, there was no pledge of additional paternity leave, and no mention at all of shared parental leave. And there was nothing to suggest the new government will address the growing but largely unsupported role of grandparents in childcare.

To the surprise of some, the manifesto did of course pledge to increase the existing entitlement of free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year-olds in England, from 15 to 30 hours per week during term-time (i.e. 38 weeks per year). And, with the publication of the Childcare Bill this week, ministers are now suggesting that roll out of the increased entitlement will begin in September 2016, a “year earlier than planned”.

With costs having soared since 2010, and many parents struggling, more free childcare has to be welcome.  Indeed, as Giselle Cory of the IPPR think tank noted in the New Statesman last week, there is unlikely to be much political argument over the aim of the Bill: “childcare is a sound investment: fund it now and we’ll see the benefits for years to come, in rising levels of maternal employment, additional tax revenues, falling child poverty, and improved child development outcomes.” However, as Giselle further notes: “the rationale is simple; delivering the policy less so.” In the words of  The Economist magazine:

The [Bill] would make childcare cheaper for most families. But it would not address another problem: the shortage of places. In spite of a fast-growing population, the number of nursery places in Britain remained unchanged between 2006 and 2014, and has only just started to pick up. Growth has been stunted because nurseries are hard to run at a profit.

One reason is rising rents, particularly in London, which push up nurseries’ costs. And there is little that nurseries can cut back on: most of their employees already earn little more than the minimum wage.

But another reason is that the government underpays nurseries for the 15 hours a week that they must provide free of charge. The shortfall amounts to £800 per child per year. If the new 30-hour allowance is funded at the same miserly rate, the shortage of places could be exacerbated.

So it is welcome that the government has this week committed to “increase the average funding rates paid to providers (the hourly funding provided for each free place)”, with Department for Eduction minister Sam Gyimah set to oversee a review “before summer”, even if it is still far from clear how any increased rate would itself be funded. Ministers have so far committed only £350 million a year to fund the pledge, but the Pre-School Learning Alliance of private and voluntary providers argues this would leave a shortfall of £250m a year, on top of the existing annual shortfall of £100m. And it’s worth remembering that, as recently as December, Sam Gyimah was claiming that Labour’s  very similar but less ambitious promise to increase the free childcare allowance to just 25 hours per week would cost “at least £1.5 billion”.

Elsewhere in the Queen’s Speech, there was little cheer for struggling families – working or otherwise. The Full Employment & Welfare Bill will reduce the current household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 per year, amid warnings that this could plunge 40,000 children into poverty. Ministers have yet to spell out where pledged cuts of £12 billion to the welfare budget will actually fall, with the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies warning that further cuts on such a scale will most likely either increase poverty or undermine the Full Employment & Welfare Bill’s aim to “ensure that it pays to work” by weakening work incentives. And the Enterprise Bill’s principal aim of “cutting red tape and saving businesses at least £10 billion [by 2020]” seems to offer little hope any progressive reform of maternity, paternity and shared parental leave, or of employment rights more generally.

In that context, it must be hoped that the publication – possibly later this month – by the Equality & Human Rights Commission of the findings of its £1 million programme of research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work, will at least prompt a ministerial rethink in relation to the prohibitively high employment tribunal fees introduced in July 2013. For all the indications are that the Commission will report such unlawful discrimination to be more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before.

All in all, this means there remains a lot of work to do in convincing ministers of the benefits of making work work for all. Together with our partner organisations – such as the Family & Childcare Trust, Gingerbread, the Fawcett Society, NCT, and the TUC – we at Working Families will be working hard to promote the benefits of tackling low pay (including the disturbingly low rate of statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay), adopting a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment, extending paternity leave, and creating a new right to a period of ‘adjustment leave’ to enable families to weather a ‘life shock’ without giving up work.

We will press ministers to conduct their long-promised review of employment tribunal fees, and to consider whether further governmental action is necessary to tackle zero-hours contracts and other forms of ‘casualisation’ in the labour market – an issue highlighted in the most recent annual report of our legal advice team. And we will work to ensure that the Childcare Bill addresses the particularly acute childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled and special needs children.

 

A pregnant question for new ministers

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Sally, a young woman working 30 hours per week as a waitress and newly pregnant with her first child, was wrongly told by her manager/employer that she was only entitled to take six weeks of maternity leave, and warned that she would be sacked if she did not return to work at the end of that period. When Sally protested that she was legally entitled to 12 months of maternity leave – including nine months on statutory maternity pay – her hours were summarily reduced to just 15 hours per week, a deliberate move to lower Sally’s wages below the level necessary for her to retain an entitlement to statutory maternity pay.

Sally is one of the hundreds of women who contacted the Working Families legal helpline in recent years after being subjected to pregnancy or maternity discrimination by their employer. In 2014, as in previous years, about one in ten of the 2,350 women who contacted the helpline over the year appeared to our advisers to have been subject to such unlawful discrimination.

Sadly, such discrimination is nothing new: in 2005, a landmark investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission concluded that half of all pregnant working women suffered a related disadvantage at work, and that some 30,000 pregnant women and new mothers were being forced out of their jobs each year. But all the available evidence suggests that – due not least to rapid growth in the use of zero-hours contracts and other ‘casualised’ forms of employment since the onset of economic recession in 2008 – such discrimination is now more common in UK workplaces than ever before, with rogue employers seemingly emboldened to discriminate ever more blatantly.

That’s certainly the impression given by the shocking personal stories posted on  Pregnant then screwed, a new website founded by Joeli Brearley, who lost her job as a self-employed project manager after becoming pregnant with her first child. In Joeli’s own words, the website is intended to provide:

“A place for women to tell their stories anonymously and in their own words. This is not only a cathartic way to release some of the bruising and unfair experiences they have undergone, it is also a medium to shine a light on this systemic problem. It is a way to open public debate and change common perceptions about pregnant women whilst campaigning for more effective laws to protect them”.

In just a few weeks, Joeli has generated an impressive amount of media coverage, appearing on BBC TV’s Victoria Live show and BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph. And it must be hoped that newly installed government ministers such as the Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Business Secretary, Sajiv Javid, have been paying attention while they get their feet under their Whitehall desks.  Because – just as pregnancy and maternity discrimination has become ever more common in UK workplaces – it has also become far more difficult for women to challenge such unlawful action by their employer.

Access to already overstretched sources of legal advice and support – such as law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux – has been severely curtailed by cuts to local authority funding and the abolition of almost all civil legal aid. In March this year, the justice select committee of MPs reported that one in six law centres have closed since 2013, and that the CAB service has lost 350 specialist advisers. And, perhaps most damagingly of all, the introduction of upfront employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 by the Ministry of Justice in July 2013 has created a significant barrier to justice, leading to an 80 per cent fall in the number of sex or pregnancy related discrimination claims.

sex

During the General Election campaign, former business secretary Vince Cable conceded that the Coalition’s introduction of fees had been a “very bad” mistake, as the fees are “discouraging people – and especially low-paid women – from pursuing their [legal] rights”. Accusing former Conservative ministerial colleagues such as former justice secretary Chris Grayling of “an act of remarkable bad faith” for failing to carry out a promised review of the fees regime after 12 months, Dr Cable told the Independent “we urgently need a proper review to be sure no one is being denied access to justice”.

As a member of the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination, Working Families believes that conducting that long-promised review of the fees regime must now be an urgent priority for new ministers. In February, shortly before the dissolution of Parliament, then minister for women and equalities Nicky Morgan told the House of Commons:

“We have made a commitment to conduct a review of the introduction of the fees, and we will do so, but we think that this is a matter for the next Administration and the next Parliament”.

Having since been reappointed to her Cabinet-level role, Nicky Morgan is a senior member of that ‘next Administration’, and it must be hoped that she is now pressing the new justice secretary, Michael Gove, to make good on her promise to Parliament. For the blight of unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination by rogue employers will not be tackled so long as women are denied effective access to justice.

 

 

#GE2015: what might the other parties offer working families, if part of a new coalition?

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Previously on this blog, we have compared the manifestos of the three main Westminster parties – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – against our own ‘families & work’ manifesto, Making work actually work for all. In this post we look at the manifestos of: the Green Party, Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, and Ukip. For, while none of these parties has any chance of forming the next government, it is quite possible that one or more may end up as part of a coalition government or supporting a minority government. And that could mean significant influence on government policy on some issues.

Our ‘families & work’ manifesto sets out eight specific policy proposals, grouped under four headings: time; equality; money; and childcare infrastructure. Each proposal was chosen as being emblematic of what we and the member organisations of the Families & Work Group believe should be the broad thrust of policy reform in these four areas. And each offered the political parties an opportunity to demonstrate a practical commitment to our vision of work that actually works for all families and all employers.

Time

Our two proposals were:

  • Adopt a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector, so as to increase the supply of good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs; and
  • Create a new statutory right to a period of adjustment leave, to enable families to weather a crisis in their caring responsibilities without giving up work.

No such policy pledges appear in the manifestos of the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, or Ukip. Indeed, none of the four parties appears to attach any great importance to the issues of ‘flexible working’ or ‘work-family balance’ – though the Greens do pledge to “phase in a 35-hour [working] week”. None uses the term ‘flexible working’ even once.

As with the manifestos of three main Westminster parties,  this is deeply disappointing. For – as demonstrated by our recent report on the work of our legal helpline in 2014, and an important new report this week by the Child Poverty Action Group – the notion of real work-life balance choice remains a fiction for all too many low-paid parents and carers. In low-paid sectors of the economy like social care, cleaning, and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of men and especially women work in ‘casualised’ forms of employment  – such as zero-hours contracts – that offer little in the way of pay, guaranteed hours, work-life balance rights, or job security. And what Citizens Advice calls the “hyper-flexibility” of such jobs is all one way.

Even for those in more secure forms of employment, there are key gaps in the legal framework for time off work to fulfil family or other caring responsibilities, especially at times of major crisis such as the onset of disability of a child. All too many working parents are forced to rely heavily on grandparents to provide childcare. And there is a severe shortage of good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs  – a situation that puts single parents and parents of disabled children at a particular disadvantage. Yet Camden Council and others are showing that it is perfectly possible for the public sector to start addressing this shortage by adopting a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design, and the private sector should be encouraged to follow.

Equality

Our two proposals were:

  • Increase statutory paid paternity leave from two to six weeks, paid at 90 per cent of earnings; and
  • Reform and simplify shared parental leave, including making it a ‘Day One’ right for fathers.

As with flexible working and work-family balance, the issues of maternity, paternity and parental leave are barely touched upon in the manifestos of the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and Ukip. The SNP  says that it would take action to secure “greater support for parents with increased paternity leave”, but gives no further detail. The words ‘maternity’, ‘paternity’ and ‘parental’ do not appear at all in either the Plaid Cymru or the Ukip manifestos. And, while the Ukip manifesto uses the word ‘leave’ 31 times, in all but five cases this is either as part of the phrase “leave the EU” or in a reference to the immigration status of ‘leave to remain’ in the UK.

Again, this is disappointing. For, while the rate at which it is paid remains so pitifully low – less than 60 per cent of the national minimum wage (see below) – take up of the new shared parental leave is likely to be slow.  Yet it is imperative that we get fathers more involved in caring for their children, to ensure gender equality in the home as well as at work, limit the time that very young children spend in non-parental care, and reduce overall childcare costs for families. So the next government needs to work towards longer, more flexible and better paid periods of dedicated leave for fathers (and other partners).

More positively, the SNP manifesto includes pledges to “ensure that women are fairly treated at work with action to secure equal pay” and to “support the tightening of the law on maternity discrimination, with legislation introduced within the first year of a new UK government.” Similarly the Green Party pledges to “make equal pay for men and women a reality”, and to “ensure that the laws to prevent discrimination against women on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity pay are properly enforced”, including by “reducing employment tribunal fees so that tribunals are accessible to workers”. Interestingly, this week Business Secretary Vince Cable has admitted that the tribunal fees introduced in July 2013 were a “very bad move” that “should be reversed” as they are “discouraging people – particularly low paid women – from pursuing their [workplace] rights”. Plus there are welcome Green Party pledges to “reinstate” the funding of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, and “restore cuts to legal aid” – though it’s not at all clear how the £3.5 billion cost of the latter over five years would be funded.

The Plaid Cymru manifesto barely mentions discrimination of any kind, stating only that the party would “work closely with the Equality & Human Rights Commission to raise awareness and prevent discrimination in terms of access to employment”. However, there is a welcome pledge to “review the current levels of employment tribunal fees implemented by the UK government, whose high costs prevent workers from getting access to justice”.

Money

Our two proposals were:

  • Immediately restore the real value of statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay, lost as a result of the one per cent cap on the annual uprating since 2013, and set out a programme of annual increases to raise such pay to at least the minimum wage within ten years; and
  • Enhance the potential of Universal Credit to ensure that work really does pay for all working families.

Sadly the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Ukip manifestos give the rate at which maternity, paternity and parental leave is paid no more attention than they do the leave itself, though the Green Party does at least say it would “restore the link between state benefits and earnings, [and] ensure state benefits rise as fast as prices or wages (whichever grows more)”. Again, this is disappointing. At £139.58 per week, statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay equates to just 57 per cent of the adult national minimum wage (£243.75 for a 37.5-hour week, at £6.50 per hour), just 47 per cent of the Living Wage (£294.37 for a 37.5-hour week, at £7.85 per hour outside London), and a mere 27 per cent of the median gross weekly earnings of full-time employees (£518 in April 2014). Getting by on such a low income would be challenging at the best of times, but is especially hard when bearing all the additional costs that come with the birth of a child.

On the issue of low pay more generally, the Green Party says it would “increase the minimum wage so that it is a living wage. We propose a minimum wage target for everyone who is working in the UK of £10 per hour by 2020. In 2015, this would mean a minimum wage of £8/10 per hour generally (and £9.40 in London), saving £2.4 billion a year in tax credits and generating an additional £1.5 billion a year in income tax and National Insurance.”  Similarly, Plaid Cymru pledges to “increase the minimum wage to be the same level as the Living Wage over the next Parliament”, benefiting “more than 250,000 workers” in Wales.

The SNP says it would “vote to increase the minimum wage to £8.70 by 2020”, and that it would “support measures to extend the Living Wage across the UK” (the Scottish Government is already a Living Wage employer). Ukip has no target for the minimum wage rate, but – like the Conservatives – pledges to raise the income tax personal allowance to “at least £13,000” so as to “take those on the minimum wage out of tax altogether”. And Nigel Farage’s party promises to “enforce the minimum wage and reverse the [Coalition’s] cuts in the number of minimum wage inspectors”.

On Universal Credit (UC), the Green Party pledges to “halt implementation of the UC programme and carry out a thorough review of it structure and implementation, including the treatment of earned income, and removing conditionality”. The SNP also pledges to “halt the roll out of UC”, stating that “the current tapers for UC have been set too low, which means claimants will still be caught in the benefits trap, with clear financial disincentives in place for work … there should be an increase in the work allowance, to deliver a significant boost to the incomes of people moving into work”. And the Plaid Cymru manifesto states that “the UC system should not be implemented until a fully independent and comprehensive review is carried out”. The Ukip manifesto makes no mention of Universal Credit.

Childcare infrastructure

Our two proposals were:

  • Appoint a cabinet-level minister for childcare, to lead on developing a new national strategy aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years; and
  • Appoint a minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the supply of affordable and appropriate childcare for disabled children.

Childcare is the one issue mentioned in all four manifestos. The Green Party has the boldest ambition, with a pledge to “provide a comprehensive, nationwide system of good-quality pre-school early education and childcare, free at the point of delivery”. This would involve “building a free but voluntary universal education and childcare service for all children from birth until compulsory education age, which we would raise to 7 years”, and the party would “ensure that the system includes children’s centres for the very youngest children and their parents”. However, it is far from clear how the estimated £27 billion cost over five years would be funded.

The SNP manifesto sets out a more modest pledge – similar to that of the Conservatives and Labour – to “build on [the Scottish Government’s] current commitment to 600 hours of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds and eligible 2 year olds” by “almost doubling the number of free hours to 30 hours a week of free childcare by the end of the next Scottish Parliament”.  Plaid Cymru manages only a very general promise to “aim to provide flexible and affordable childcare, particularly in deprived areas” and – while its manifesto sets out a “vision for childcare [of] a system where parents, teachers, schools, nurseries, children’s centres, local authorities, childcare providers and businesses all work together to make provision as affordable, flexible , available and as high-quality as possible” – Ukip promises only that it would “initiate a full review of childcare provision”.

While the Green Party pledges to “recognise the rights of children who are disabled, and their families, in education, the transition to adult life, [and] in childcare”, the Plaid Cymru manifesto is the only one of the seven we have examined over these two blog posts to specifically address the particularly acute childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children, stating: “We will help families with disabled children to be able to afford childcare and improve the availability of childcare for children with disabilities”.

Whoever forms the new government after 7 May, we at Working Families will be working hard to persuade ministers to follow this laudable lead.

Tackling the wrong kind of flexibility: the work of our legal helpline in 2014

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Amid the biggest living standards crisis in a generation, and with research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the London School of Economics suggesting that the Coalition’s tax and benefit reforms have hit families with children under five harder than any other household type, 2014 was another busy year for the Working Families helpline team.

Simon, a single parent working for a provider of services to the elderly, called the helpline after his employer refused his formal request to change his work pattern to accommodate an unavoidable change in his childcare. Although employed on a zero-hours contract, Simon had for several years worked five full days a week, including Saturday and Sunday. But now his childcare support had changed, Simon could no longer work weekends, and he was afraid he would have to give up his job.

Simon is one of 2,766 working parents and carers – 85 per cent of them women, and almost one in four a single parent – who telephoned or emailed the helpline in 2014. The helpline team provides free advice on key work-life balance rights such as maternity and paternity leave and pay, provides support on requesting and negotiating flexible working – or with contesting imposed changes to an existing working arrangement – and advises on challenging pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination at work and accessing relevant social security benefits and tax credits.

The team’s annual report, published today, shows that, despite some reduced capacity due to staff changes, and an increase in the proportion of callers requiring more than one interaction, the team advised and supported almost 200 more callers than in 2013. And, as in previous years, the most common issues raised by callers were: maternity leave and pay; benefits and tax credits; other maternity rights; flexible working; and pregnancy or maternity related discrimination.

With essential living costs having risen faster than wages in recent years, and childcare costs continuing to spiral upwards, many of those who contacted the helpline were simply struggling to find a way to make work pay.

Nicky called the helpline shortly after returning to work from maternity leave, because she was struggling with the cost of childcare for her six-months-old child. Nicky earns just over £20,000 per year, and her partner – an apprentice electrician – £15,000 per year. The helpline team was able to confirm that Nicky is receiving the right level of working tax credit, but Nicky feels she has no choice but to give up work to care for her child.

Many of the women on maternity leave who contacted the helpline team were finding it difficult to manage on the weekly statutory maternity pay of just £138.18, capped at below-inflation annual increases since 2013 and equal to just 60 per cent of the national minimum wage.

Jackie called the helpline while on maternity leave and receiving statutory maternity pay, because she wanted to take more than nine months’ maternity leave but simply couldn’t afford to take unpaid leave. The helpline team reports that this is a “very common call”, and that many women in low-paid jobs have little choice but to return to work at the end of statutory maternity pay.

Many others who called or emailed the helpline in 2014 were trying to adopt a flexible working pattern in response to a major change in their caring responsibilities, such as taking on the care of an elderly parent, relationship breakdown, or the onset of disability of a child or partner. And, in theory at least, this became easier from June 2014, with the extension to all employees of the right to request flexible working, previously limited to parents and carers. In the words of the then employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, “we want to see flexible working become the norm, not the exception”.

However, the helpline team report that, if there is one stand-out feature of their work in 2014, it is that the notion of flexible working is simply illusory for all too many of the parents and carers who contact the team for help.

The wrong kind of flexibility

In low-paid sectors like social care, retail, cleaning, and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of men and especially women work on zero-hours contracts and other ‘casualised’ forms of employment that offer little in the way of pay, guaranteed hours or job security.  And what Citizens Advice calls the “hyper-flexibility” of such jobs is all one way.

By their nature, such insecure jobs, with varying and unpredictable weekly hours, can result in significant variations in income, making it hard to arrange (or retain) childcare and disrupting social security payments. But they also make it very difficult if not impossible for workers to successfully request a change in their hours or working pattern to accommodate a change in their family circumstances, or to resist a problematic change in their hours or working pattern imposed by their employer.

For a refusal to work shorter, longer or simply different hours can easily lead to there being no hours at all. And the introduction of upfront tribunal fees in July 2013, unaffordable to many, has made it harder than it’s ever been to challenge any unlawful action on the part of the employer. In the months following the introduction of fees, claims for unfair dismissal fell by 65 per cent, and claims for sex or pregnancy discrimination fell by 80 per cent. In the words of one senior employment judge, it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that access to justice has been curtailed”.

Mandy had worked for a bank on a zero-hours contract for several months without any indication from her employer of dissatisfaction with her work. However, when Mandy informed her employer she was pregnant, her manager stated there had been complaints about her work. And, when Mandy challenged this, the manager changed the story to “you haven’t been working hard enough”. Mandy’s hours were then reduced to zero – in effect, she was summarily dismissed.

Similarly, Denise, employed on a zero-hours contract, had had her working hours substantially cut since she had taken time off for a pregnancy-related illness. When she had challenged her employer, pointing out that several new staff had been taken on, she was told “we need people we can rely on”. The helpline team advised Denise that her treatment amounted to pregnancy discrimination, but Denise said there was no way she could afford to pay the fees of £1,200 to pursue a tribunal claim.

Against this rather grim backdrop, the helpline team can – and frequently does – make a huge difference to the situation of individual callers. Good information and personalised advice empowers callers to make an informed decision about whether and how to negotiate with their employer, the most effective way to challenge unlawful treatment, or how to change their working pattern in such a way to maximise their income once benefit payments, tax credit awards and childcare costs are taken into account.

Evidence from the casework of the helpline team also informs the wider policy and campaigning activity of Working Families, including our ‘families and work’ manifesto for next month’s General Election. So we remain extremely grateful to the team’s key funders, Matrix Chambers and the Big Lottery Fund, and to our many other supporters who make the work of the team possible.

#GE2015: What are the three main parties offering for working families?

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Last week, as the General Election campaign reached its mid-point, a small forest of trees was lost for ever as the three main political parties – first Labour, then the Conservatives, and finally the Liberal Democrats – published their manifestos. With a combined length of 330 pages containing some 75,000 words, it would be quicker – and, believe me, a lot more pleasurable – to read, for example, both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So, to save you the trouble (and time), we’ve been comparing the three manifestos against our own ‘families & work’ manifesto, Making work actually work for all.

That manifesto set out eight specific policy proposals, grouped under four headings: time; equality; money; and childcare infrastructure. Each proposal was chosen as being emblematic of what we and the member organisations of the Families & Work Group believe should be the broad thrust of policy reform in these four areas. And each offered the political parties an opportunity to demonstrate a practical commitment to our vision of work that actually works for all families and all employers.

So, how do the three manifestos measure up?

Time

Our two proposals were:

  •  Adopt a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector, so as to increase the supply of good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs; and
  • Create a new statutory right to a period of adjustment leave, to enable families to weather a crisis in their caring responsibilities without giving up work.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the three parties sets out any new proposals to support and encourage the spread of flexible working practices. Indeed, the term ‘flexible working’ is mentioned only once, and even that is just a backwards-looking reference (by the Liberal Democrats) to the Coalition’s extension of the right to request flexible working to all workers in June 2014. This is deeply disappointing, as it is abundantly clear that take-up of flexible working remains heavily gendered, and that there are simply too few good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs available – a situation that puts single parents and parents of disabled children at a particular disadvantage.

It’s also disappointing that none of the three parties has taken up the idea of a right to adjustment leave. As our recent report Off balance demonstrates, much more needs to be done to support the parents of disabled children to either stay in work or re-enter the workforce. Eight out of ten non-working parents feel that they had no choice but to give up work upon, or very soon after, the diagnosis of their child. This common all-or-nothing scenario could be avoided by allowing such parents the chance to adjust to a change in their caring responsibilities. And cost analysis carried out for Working Families indicates that a legal right to up to six weeks of paid adjustment leave for the parents of disabled children could result in a potential annual net gain to the economy of £500 million.

Equality

Our two proposals were:

  • Increase statutory paid paternity leave from two to six weeks, paid at 90 per cent of earnings; and
  • Reform and simplify shared parental leave, including making it a ‘Day One’ right for fathers.

Here there is (relatively) good news, even if it isn’t terribly new. The Liberal Democrats repeat the pledge made in their October 2014 pre-manifesto of an extra four weeks of paternity leave, to be paid at the current (ludicrously low) rate of £138 per week, and Labour confirm their February 2015 announcement of an extra two weeks, to be paid at a more respectable £260 per week (roughly equivalent to the full-time minimum wage). However, the Conservatives are silent on the issue.

Only the Liberal Democrats make any mention of shared parental leave, and even then that is mostly in relation to the Coalition’s introduction of the new scheme, rather than any future plans. However, there is a welcome statement that, “while changes to parental leave should be introduced slowly to give business time to adjust, our ambition is to see paternity and shared parental leave become a ‘Day One’ right’”. And there is a very welcome (if  vague) promise to “introduce a right to paid leave for carers”.

All three parties pledge to work to close the gender pay gap, and Labour’s separate Manifesto for Women contains a very welcome promise to “consult on allowing grandparents who want to be more involved in caring for their grandchildren to share in parents’ unpaid parental leave, enabling them to take time off work without fear of losing their job”. See this recent guest post by Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus for more on this important issue.

Money

Our two proposals were:

  • Immediately restore the real value of statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay, lost as a result of the one per cent cap on the annual uprating since 2013, and set out a programme of annual increases to raise such pay to at least the  minimum wage within ten years; and
  • Enhance the potential of Universal Credit to ensure that work really does pay for all working families.

Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the parties makes even a nod to raising statutory maternity, paternity and parental pay towards parity with the minimum wage. This would be an ambitious policy call at the best of times, let alone when all the main parties are committed to varying degrees of further austerity in public spending. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do at least say they would exempt maternity, paternity and parental pay from the one per cent cap on the uprating of social security benefits that they both say they would extend until April 2018. However, as noted previously on this blog, Labour’s pledge to pay statutory paternity leave at almost twice the current rate opens a door that we will work hard to open wider in the years ahead.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledge to complete the roll-out of Universal Credit, though neither party sets out any new ideas on how the new system might be improved. Labour is more circumspect, stating: “We support the principle behind Universal Credit – that there should be a smooth transition into work – but it must be affordable and fit for purpose, so we will pause and review the programme”. And the Liberal Democrats say they would review the sanctions regime to “ensure there are no league tables or targets for sanctions”, and would “introduce a ‘yellow card’ warning so people are only sanctioned if they deliberately and repeatedly break the rules”.

Childcare infrastructure

Our two proposals were:

  • Appoint a cabinet-level minister for childcare, to lead on developing a new national strategy aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years; and
  • Appoint a minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the supply of affordable and appropriate childcare for disabled children.

As expected, all three manifestos include a childcare offer. That of the Liberal Democrats is perhaps the most ambitious, setting out an ultimate goal of 20 hours of free childcare a week for all parents with children aged from two to four-years, and all working parents from the end of paid parental leave (nine months) to two years”. However, there is no timetable for reaching this goal.

Labour’s manifesto reiterates the party’s longstanding pledge to increase the existing entitlement of free childcare for parents of three- and four-year-olds, from 15 to 25 hours per week. And, to the surprise of many, the Conservative manifesto outbids this, with a pledge of 30 hours per week. However, with the Conservatives reportedly having costed this pledge of an extra 15 hours at just £350 million – less than half the £800 million that Labour says it would need for its extra ten hours – some critics have suggested that this pledge is simply “too good to be true”. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledge to implement the Coalition’s tax-free childcare scheme, set to come into force later this year, but Labour’s manifesto does not mention the scheme.

Sadly, none of the three parties makes any mention of the additional childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children. This is something that we will be working hard to remedy, whoever forms the next government.

[We will assess the manifestos of the other political parties in a future post]

Grandparents & childcare: will our politicians learn from their electioneering?

In this guest post, Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus argues that politicians have yet to understand just how reliant many working parents are on grandparents for childcare.

Last week, journalist Gaby Hinsliff let us into one of those elephant-sized hidden truths of the general election campaign when she tweeted:

“This election’s basically reliant on grandparents: every MP/journo/aide with kids I’ve spoken to recently basically reliant on them for campaign childcare.”

So, electioneering doesn’t fit neatly into formal childcare hours – 15 hours of nursery care or the 8am – 6pm that a childminder might offer. Surprised? Yet dependent though they may be, how many of those politicos stop to think whether those grandparents deserve a bit of recognition for what they do? Or (perish the thought) what they would do without them to rely on? Not much campaigning after 6pm methinks, that’s for sure.

Every day across the UK, working parents rely heavily upon grandparents for childcare. Our grandparents – and, let’s be honest about it, often it’s our grandmothers – are the engine room of the UK economy keeping those ‘hard working families’ ‘hard working’. A recent Grandparents Plus Survation poll found that one in five working parents – that’s two million of them – would give up their jobs if they didn’t have grandparents to rely on. A further 20 per cent would reduce their hours. And no surprises to see that it’s mothers more than fathers who take the hit – but there were still 15 per cent of dads saying that they would give up work.

So what’s the problem? Grandparents do it for love, they enjoy it etc. Well, of course they do. But the challenge for us all, and for government is that grandparents aged 55-64 provide the lion’s share of the childcare with those aged 65-74 next in line. There are eight million grandparents providing childcare and most of them are now expected to be staying in work rather than providing childcare in their leisurely retirement. We are expecting these generations of grandparents to be both caring more and working longer – and it doesn’t stack up.

Another Grandparents Plus poll, this time in partnership with Family and Childcare Trust and Save the Children, found that 14 per cent of grandparents had either given up a job, reduced their hours or taken days off sick to provide childcare. That’s 1.9 million grandparents. Again, it’s grandmothers who are most likely to say they gave up work or reduced their hours, but 400,000 grandfathers did so too.

But look even closer at those who are doing the intensive caring and you see that it is younger grandmothers (those in their 50s or even 40s) who are particularly likely to be providing longer hours of childcare. DWP research found that low income mothers are twice as likely to rely exclusively on informal childcare when they go back to work after maternity leave. Formal childcare is often beyond their reach. Either it is too expensive, or (rather like our politicos – see above) it doesn’t suit their anti-social working hours, or they are in very insecure employment and simply cannot commit to a formal childcare arrangement. Those on low pay also have less job security so how can they pay a childminder if they don’t know if they are working tomorrow?

So what’s the solution? Grandparents Plus has consistently argued for a period of grandparental leave which can be taken flexibly by grandparents who are providing childcare for working parents. Alternatively we also argue that if we see the need for shared parental leave, and conceded the principle of transferability then why not make it possible for parents to share unpaid parental leave (i.e. the 18 weeks that can be taken until a child is five) with a grandparent? This would provide some flexibility and would also enable grandparents to support when formal childcare often cannot (e.g. if a child is sick).

Together with a meaningful investment in formal childcare we could create an infrastructure of support for working parents that they can rely on and that responds to the reality of their daily lives. By doing so we would be helping our workforce’s ‘missing millions’ mothers and grandmothers stay in work. This in turn would also help employers as they would see reduce staff absences and improve retention rates.

When we ask grandparents, the public and parents a clear majority supports the policy and amongst those most affected, there is strong support. We just need our politicians (yes those mentioned above so dependent on grandparents) to get it too.

Sam Smethers is Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus.