In the second of our series of Workflex posts assessing the likely manifesto pledges of the main political parties, Richard Dunstan looks at how Labour Party policy measures up against our own ‘Families & Work’ manifesto for May 2015.
On the eve of its conference in Manchester, Labour released the annual report of its National Policy Forum (NPF), which oversees the development of party policy. At 218 pages, the report is almost three times as long as the Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto. And, with most of those pages consisting entirely of densely typed text, it’s a tome that is unlikely to be read cover-to-cover by anyone other than hard-core party members. But having been agreed by delegates in Manchester, the document now forms Labour’s “official policy programme”. So how does this programme measure up?
Time and equality
While there is disappointingly little mention of fathers – and certainly nothing to match the Liberal Democrats’ headline promise of six weeks’ statutory paternity leave – the NPF report rightly notes that the right to request flexible working has been weakened by abolition of the statutory procedure.” It pledges “Labour will support flexible working for parents, and will consider how best to support grandparents who need to fit the care of their grandchildren around their working hours.”
Labour will also “examine ways to improve support for those who are bereaved, including how flexible working rules can be used to support them.” However, the report is silent on whether Labour will continue with, tweak, or ditch the right to shared parental leave (SPL), which will have come into force just one month before the next government takes office. In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we call for reform of SPL so as to simplify the legal framework, open eligibility to all fathers from Day One of their employment, and enable SPL to be taken on a part-time basis.
There is welcome recognition of the proliferation of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in UK workplaces in recent years, and a pledge to “close legal loopholes which allow pregnancy discrimination.” More broadly, there is a “commitment to ensuring that all workers are properly protected in the workplace” and to “acting to end unfair practices and abuses in the labour market.” However, the NPF report does not explain how “increased protection for agency workers” will be enforced by an employment agencies inspectorate that, since 2010, has been reduced to a rump of just three staff.
But it is one of the few more specific policy pledges that is also the most significant. Noting that the hefty, upfront employment tribunal fees introduced in July 2013 have “resulted in prohibitive costs locking people out of justice they are entitled to”, the NPF report commits Labour to abolishing the fees regime and replacing it with “a system where affordability will not be a barrier to justice”. This would be a very welcome move, as restoring access to the tribunal system is essential to tackling pregnancy and other discrimination in the workplace, and to underpinning the newly-extended right to request flexible working.
One of the few policy announcements in Manchester to grab headlines was leader Ed Miliband’s pledge to raise the National Minimum Wage (NMW) rate to £8.00 per hour “by 2020”, which in practice means from 1 October 2019. This put flesh on the bone of the NPF report’s commitment to giving the Low Pay Commission a “new framework” with a “strengthened role in tackling in-work poverty,” and a “five year target” for increasing the NMW rate “so that it gets closer to average earnings.” The proposed hourly rate of £8.00 from October 2019 would raise the NMW from 54 to 58 per cent of the median wage, but still leave it some way short of 66 per cent, the standard definition of ‘low pay’.
Interestingly, the NPF report also states that HMRC’s role in enforcing the NMW “should be expanded to include non-payment of holiday pay” and that Labour “will also consider expanding enforcement to include non-payment of statutory sick pay and statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay.” That would be very welcome.
Disappointingly, there is no commitment to addressing the ludicrously low rate at which statutory maternity, paternity and adoption leave are currently paid. In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we call for restoration of the real value of such pay, lost as a result of the one per cent cap on annual uprating since April 2013, and a programme of annual, real-terms increases to bring parity with the NMW within ten years.
On Universal Credit, the NPF report promises “a full review” and, if it goes ahead, “major changes [to] ensure the system makes work pay for both first and second earners … and is easy to access.” This would be welcome. In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we suggest the potential of Universal Credit to ensure that work really does pay could be enhanced 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.
The NPF report reiterates Labour’s previously announced policy of “extending free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents, paid for by an increase in the bank levy”, together with “access to ‘wraparound’ childcare from 8am to 6pm” for parents of primary school children, through their local school. The report states this will “benefit those families that most require childcare support and currently struggle to find good quality before-and-after school care.”
Clearly, any increase in the provision of free childcare is welcome. But, as with the Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto, Labour’s offer falls a long way short of the “national strategy on childcare, aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years” that we call for in our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto. And again it is disappointing to find no specific pledge to address the harsh childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children – the subject of a recent parliamentary inquiry.
[The next post in this series will look at how the Conservative Party’s policies measure up against our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto]