One year to go: a ‘families and work’ manifesto for May 2015

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

Previously on this blog, we set out a draft ‘families & work’ manifesto for the General Election in May 2015, with 14 specific policy proposals grouped under four headings: time; equality; money; and childcare infrastructure.  Using feedback on that draft from a wide range of partners, we have now honed the manifesto down to eight key policy proposals.

These eight proposals have been selected as being emblematic of what we believe should be the broader thrust of policy in these four areas. And each offers an opportunity for the political parties to demonstrate a practical commitment to our vision of work that actually works for all families and all employers – whatever their size and shape.

There is now less than a year to go until the General Election in May 2015, and over the coming weeks we will be using this manifesto to engage policy makers in dialogue on these issues, and will be further refining the manifesto in the light of feedback. So please do tell us your views, either by posting a comment below, or by emailing me at: richard.dunstan@workingfamilies.org.uk

Time

Despite great progress in both the law and employer best practice, negative assumptions about flexible and family-friendly working persist. Reduced-hours working is still heavily gendered and all too often seen as a lack of commitment, with senior roles and flexible working wrongly held to be incompatible. There are key gaps in the legal framework for time off work in order to fulfil family responsibilities, especially at times of crisis. And there are simply too few good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs, putting single parents and parents of disabled children at particular disadvantage.

With an ageing population, we need to recognise and support the growing role of grandparents in family care, including by granting grandparents a leave entitlement similar to the existing right to unpaid parental leave. The law on employment status needs to be updated to ensure that workers on zero-hours contracts, agency workers and others all enjoy access to ‘family-friendly’ rights. And we need to greatly increase the supply of good quality, flexible jobs.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Establish a new  right to a period of adjustment leave, to enable families to weather relatively short-term life crises such as the death, serious illness, or onset of disability of a partner, parent or child, or other major change in their caring responsibilities, without having to give up work.
  2. Adopt a flexible by default approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector, so that all jobs in central and local government are advertised on a flexible basis unless there is a specific, good business reason not to. Ministers should act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and should encourage private sector employers to adopt Working Families’ Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline.

Equality at work and at home

Take-up of additional paternity leave beyond a short period at or shortly after the time of birth has been pitifully low.[i] And, whilst the rate at which it is paid remains so low, take-up by fathers of the new shared parental leave is also likely to be low. Yet it is vital 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 childcare costs for families.

The evidence from other countries is that fathers take full advantage of paternity leave only when it is well paid, and is a stand-alone right. So we need to work towards longer, more flexible and better paid periods of dedicated leave for fathers.

To be meaningful, rights on paper need to be enforceable. To drive gender equality in the workplace and tackle the increasingly widespread discrimination around pregnancy and maternity leave, the hefty employment tribunal fees for claimants introduced in July 2013 must, at the very least, be reduced to a nominal level.[ii] And we need a clear statutory right to time-off and facilities for breastfeeding mothers upon return to work.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Increase the current statutory entitlement to paid paternity leave, from two weeks to six weeks, with four of the six weeks available to be taken at any point during the child’s first year. This should be a Day One right and, like the first six weeks of statutory maternity leave, this leave should be paid at 90 per cent of earnings.
  2. Reform the new right to shared parental leave – due to come into force in April 2015 – so as to simplify the legal framework, open eligibility to all fathers from Day One of their employment, and enable statutory paid leave to be taken on a part-time basis.

Money

To achieve a good work-life balance, working parents need a flexible job that pays well enough to support a family. Yet Britain is suffering an increasingly entrenched crisis of low pay, which steals time from families and consumes vast subsidies by the State.

This challenge requires robust action. We need to see more employers adopting the Living Wage, and the government should take an active role in making this happen. The national minimum wage needs to be both increased and better enforced, which means more human and other resources for enforcement.  The design of Universal Credit needs to be further improved, to ensure work really does pay. And we need to start raising the astonishingly low level of statutory maternity and paternity pay – currently paid at just 60 per cent of the national minimum wage.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Restore the real value of statutory maternity and paternity pay, lost as a result of the one per cent cap on annual uprating since April 2013, and set out a programme of annual, real terms increases so as to raise such pay to at least the level of the national minimum wage within ten years.
  2. Enhance the potential of Universal Credit to ensure that work really does pay for all working families, by (a) introducing a work allowance for second earners, and (b) strengthening safeguards to prevent parents being pushed into family-unfriendly jobs by the threat of sanctions.

Childcare infrastructure

Despite a series of welcome political initiatives and considerable public investment, our childcare system is still not fit for purpose, with demand outstripping the supply of affordable childcare. All too often, parental choice about whether or how many hours to work is constrained or even dictated by the local availability of affordable childcare. And the childcare crunch is particularly acute for single parents, those working atypical hours, parents of disabled children, and those living in rural areas.

We need to work towards a system that delivers good quality, affordable childcare to all working parents when they need it, whilst at the same time protecting and enhancing the well-being of our children. However, the challenge must be met not by children spending excessive time in costly childcare, but by more flexible working for parents and a better, more flexible supply of good quality, affordable childcare.

That amounts to a very significant challenge, which we believe will only be met when the issue of childcare is treated as one of economic and social infrastructure on a par with education and transport.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Appoint a cabinet-level, cross-departmental minister for childcare. In recognition of the fact that good childcare infrastructure boosts economic activity as well as child development, this minister should be based in both the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. He or she should lead on developing a new national strategy on childcare, aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years.
  2. Appoint a minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the supply of good quality, affordable and appropriate childcare for disabled children. At present, only one in four local authorities report sufficiency of childcare for disabled children in their area.

Endnotes

[i] Official figures released by HM Revenue & Customs in April 2014 show that the employers of fewer than 3,900 fathers were reimbursed for statutory additional paternity leave in 2012/13. Hansard, House Commons, 3 April 2014, col. 746W.

[ii] The most recent figures made available by the Ministry of Justice show a dramatic fall in the number of employment tribunal claims by individual claimants, from an average of 4,530 per month prior to the introduction of claimant fees of up to £1,200 on 29 July 2013, to just 1,000 in September, 1,620 in October, 1,840 in November, and 1,500 in December.

Advertisements

One thought on “One year to go: a ‘families and work’ manifesto for May 2015

  1. We should be bolder in our demands, hedge them about with fewer get-outs and speed up their implementation. A new radical government with the will could deliver most of these asks within a Parliament.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s