An afternoon in Westminster: the Working Families policy conference

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Last Tuesday, some 120 policy wonks, campaigners and academics  gathered in Portcullis House, Westminster for the second Working Families annual policy conference, kindly hosted by former cabinet minister Maria Miller MP. With the presentation of two new Working Families reports, keynote speeches by MPs from each of the three main parties, and panel discussions on ‘The 21st Century Working Family’ and ‘Tackling In-Work Poverty’, there was a crowded agenda. And it being exactly 100 days to go to the General Election on 7 May seemed to add a certain spice to the debate.

Not surprisingly, there was much talk of manifestos, and some very welcome indication from the three MPs – Maria Miller for the Conservatives, shadow childcare minister Alison McGovern for Labour, and BIS minister Jo Swinson for the Liberal Democrats – of cross-party support for key policy asks in the Families & Work Manifesto for May 2015, developed by Working Families, Family & Childcare Trust, Fatherhood Institute, Fawcett Society, Gingerbread, Grandparents Plus, Maternity Action, NCT, Parents Across Scotland, Single Parents Action Network, TUC, Women’s Budget Group and others.

Noting the “record numbers of women in work” and that “the sandwich-generation faces the dual challenge of childcare and eldercare”, Maria Miller said “we have to ensure that a model of work designed by men for men is not just given a lick of paint. We have to make flexible working the norm.” Mrs Miller suggested that the Families & Work Manifesto call for adoption of a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector is “something that should be taken up by all three main parties.”

On childcare, Mrs Miller noted that, while overall supply has greatly increased over the past two decades, “affordability and flexibility are the challenges we’ve yet to meet.” And, as demonstrated in the new Working Families report Off Balance, launched at the conference, this is especially true for the working parents of disabled children and young people, for whom childcare is not just an ‘under fives’ issue.

Picking up on one of the key findings from the new Modern Families Index, also launched at the conference, that “there is an appetite among working parents” for the Shared Parental Leave (SPL) that comes fully into force in April, employment relations and equalities minister Jo Swinson noted that “the cost of childcare can be a major barrier to new mothers returning to work after maternity leave” but “childcare is not just an issue for women.” Ms Swinson believes the availability of SPL will “prompt a conversation” between parents on how to share their new caring responsibilities.

Endorsing Maria Miller’s call for private sector employers to adopt the Happy to Talk Flexible Working strap line developed by Working Families,  Ms Swinson argued that male business leaders should “use their visibility to set a good example” on flexible working and shared parenting. The Families & Work Manifesto calls for ministers to act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and encourage use of the strapline.

Following a theme that was later to be raised again and again in the two panel discussions, Alison McGovern argued that policy-formulation on childcare and flexible working must recognise, and reflect, the reality of life for millions of low-paid working parents. For all to many low-paid working mothers in particular, flexible working now means only a zero-hours contract, with no security of job or income. And, with wild fluctuations in weekly income, finding and holding on to affordable childcare becomes a near impossibility. All too often, “families have no choice at all.”

Ms McGovern also flagged up a need to focus on the necessarily long-term goal of a seamless framework of parental leave rights and State-funded childcare. As Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus was later to highlight, some 50 per cent of working families rely on grandparents to fill the current ‘childcare gap’ between the end of statutory maternity leave (at 12 months) and the start of free entitlement to childcare (at three years).

In the two panel debates that followed an all-too-brief break for coffee, the delegates and panel members – Alison Garnham of CPAG, Fiona Weir of Gingerbread, Sam Royston of The Children’s Society, Ellen Broome of Family & Childcare Trust, William McDonald of the Fatherhood Institute, and Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus – confirmed by their contributions that, despite welcome progress in the law, public policy, and practice of many employers on flexible working and shared parenting, there remains, in Maria Miller’s words, “far more to do”. Falling real wages, growing casualisation of the labour market, spiralling childcare costs, and swingeing cuts to maternity benefits in recent years have made being a working parent more challenging than ever for all too many.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn what ideas politicians such as Alison McGovern, Maria Miller and Jo Swinson and their parties have for the next government to make work work that little bit better for parents, carers and their families.

You can now follow this blog on the new Working Families website blog pages

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