#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.

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