Tag Archives: ET fees

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.

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.

Manifesto 2015: how does Labour measure up?

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.

Money

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.

Childcare

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]

 

 

 

Manifesto 2015: how do the Liberal Democrats measure up?

By Richard Dunstan, Working Families Blog Editor

Last week, the Liberal Democrats issued their pre-manifesto for the May 2015 General Election. While the some 300 policy pledges in the pre-manifesto will be debated and voted on by party members at their conference in Glasgow early next month, the 80-page document provides a first opportunity to assess the likely policy pledges of one of the three main parties against our own ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, issued back in May this year.

In this context, the two most eye-catching proposals are 15 hours a week of free childcare for parents of all two-year-olds, and an increase in new fathers’  entitlement to statutory paid paternity leave, from two weeks to six weeks.

Childcare

On childcare, the pre-manifesto states that the “aim [is] to make 20 hours of free childcare a week available for all parents with children aged from two to four, and all working parents from the end of paid maternity leave (nine months) to two years, by 2020” and to “start by providing 15 hours a week of free childcare to the parents of all two-year-olds” with the £800m cost to be met “by cancelling the ineffective Conservative plan to introduce a marriage allowance into the tax system, [and] then prioritise 15 hours free childcare to all working parents with children aged between nine months and two years”.

The document also pledges the Liberal Democrats to completing “the introduction of tax-free childcare, which will provide support to parents of up to £2,000 for each child and include childcare support in Universal Credit, refunding 85% of childcare costs to make sure work pays for low earners”.

This unquestionably amounts to a bold move in the childcare political bidding war, which has been hotting up in recent months. However, it still 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 the pledge to continue with the tax-free childcare scheme is disappointing. In the words of Working Families helpline adviser Will Hadwen:

The tax-free childcare scheme and Universal Credit are inequitable in the way that they treat periods of work. Tax-free childcare is not means-tested, but Universal Credit is. The barriers to parents deciding which of the two to go for remain high, and it is not at all clear how or where they will get support to make that decision.

Neither the Coalition, nor now the Liberal Democrats themselves, seem to acknowledge that the conditions for each scheme may be met at different times by the same families. That is, one month Universal Credit may be the best bet for a family and then, a few months later, they would be better off with tax-free childcare. A commitment to one system of help for childcare, outside Universal Credit, would reduce complexity and increase incentives to work.

It is also deeply disappointing that the pre-manifesto contains no reference to – let alone a specific policy pledge to address – the especially harsh childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children, the subject of a recent parliamentary inquiry.

Paternity leave

The promise of six weeks of paid paternity leave is certainly very welcome, although it is not clear whether this ‘use-it-or-lose it’ entitlement would have to be used in the first two months after the birth. And it is disappointing that this increased leave entitlement would still be paid at the current, ludicrously low statutory rate.

All the evidence from other countries is that fathers take full advantage of paternity leave only when it is well-paid. And far too many men are not even taking their current entitlement of two weeks. Just a few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, noted that “a quarter of new fathers take only a week or less of paternity leave”. Those fathers won’t suddenly take more paternity leave just because more is available, if it’s paid at the same low rate as now.

In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we call for paid paternity leave to be increased from two weeks to six, but “with four of the six weeks available to be taken at any point during the child’s first year”. We also call for this to be a Day One right, and for all six weeks of this leave to be paid at 90 per cent of earnings.

Other issues

Elsewhere, the pre-manifesto contains welcome – if somewhat vague and strangely half-hearted – pledges to  “look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage … and improve enforcement action”, to ensure that the Living Wage is “paid by all central government departments and executive agencies from April 2016 onwards”, and to “clamp down on any [sic] abusive practices in relation to zero hours contracts”.

However, there is little other than mandatory pay audits to tackle pay inequality and sex, pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace, and no mention of reforming the Coalition’s controversial employment tribunal fees. With the number of new cases down by 70%, it is now clear the fees amount to a charter for dinosaur and rogue employers, and the case for reform is overwhelming. In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we suggest that the fees “must be scrapped”.

Perhaps in Glasgow next month, the party’s rank-and-file members will propel at least some of these issues into the final manifesto for May 2015.

[In forthcoming posts, we will be looking at how the likely manifesto pledges of the Conservative, Labour and other parties measure up to our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto.]

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.

Working parents struggling to hold on to family-friendly jobs

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

In the week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for radical legal and cultural change to “make family-friendly working the new norm in Britain”, the latest annual report of our legal helpline shows too many working parents struggling to hold onto family-friendly employment, and unlawful practice by unscrupulous employers ever more difficult to challenge.

Katrina is a young single mother working in the care home sector.  Two years ago, when Katrina separated from her partner, her then manager agreed to Katrina reducing her hours and working a set shift pattern, as Katrina no longer had anyone to share the childcare with.  However, that manager has now left, and Katrina’s new manager has told her that she must from now on work full-time, and on variable shift patterns. Katrina wants to keep her job, but knows she has little hope of finding affordable childcare to cover the new shift patterns that would now be involved.

Katrina is just one of the 2,585 working parents and carers – 85 per cent of them women – who called or emailed the Working Families legal helpline in 2013.  The helpline team provide free advice on key work-life balance rights such as maternity and paternity leave and pay, time off in an emergency, and unpaid parental leave.  They provide help with requesting and negotiating flexible working (or with contesting imposed changes to an existing flexible working arrangement), and with challenging pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination in the workplace.  And they offer advice on relevant social security benefits and tax credits.

With changes to the social security system – including the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and a freeze on Child Benefit – continuing to hit low-income families hard, and childcare and other essential living costs rising faster than wages, many of those who  contacted the helpline in 2013 were trying to work out how they can make work pay. And others were trying to adopt a new, family-friendly working pattern following maternity leave, or in response to a major change of family circumstances, such as relationship breakdown or the onset of disability of their child.

But in 2013 the helpline’s team of advisers dealt with an increased number of cases in which the caller’s employer had imposed, or was seeking to impose, a significant change in hours or work pattern, without adequate consultation and with little if any consideration for the resultant difficulty in meeting family responsibilities.

Launching the report  earlier today, Working Families Chief Executive, Sarah Jackson said:

A growing number of callers to the helpline are reporting the family-friendly working pattern they have had in place for years being changed or withdrawn virtually overnight, with no opportunity for them to express their views and negotiate either retention of the existing pattern or, failing that, a mutually agreeable compromise.

Among the case studies highlighted in the report:

Kathryn, a mother of three young children, called the Helpline after being told by her employer – a small retailer – she had to increase her hours and work Saturdays, with immediate effect.  Kathryn had been employed by the company for 19 years, during which time she had only ever worked on weekdays.  Kathryn’s partner already worked Saturdays, and the couple could not afford extra childcare for the Saturday.

Robin, a father of two young children, one of them disabled, had been employed as a lab technician for ten years.  For the past three years, Robin had worked from 6.30 am to 2.30 pm each weekday, so as to cover the afternoon school run.  Now his employer had told Robin that he must change his hours to 8.30 am to 5.15 pm, which would make it impossible for Robin to be available for either school run.

Harini, a children’s centre worker, was told that on her return from maternity leave she would have to change her long-established flexible working pattern so as to do more work from the office and less from home, despite her role having become more strategy-based. With the helpline team’s assistance, Harini submitted a formal grievance, and the employer then backed down, allowing Harini to return to work on her previous working pattern.

It is especially pleasing when, as in Harini’s case, our helpline team is able to support many callers through negotiating an agreeable solution, enabling them to stay with their employer.  But the team deal with far too many cases in which the employer is unreasonably intransigent, and the introduction of upfront employment tribunal fees last year appears to have put formal legal action out of the reach of many.

The most recent official figures show a dramatic fall in the number of employment tribunal claims by individual claimants, from an average of 4,530 per month before the introduction of fees in July 2013, to just 1,000 in September, 1,620 in October, 1,840 in November, and 1,500 in December.

This matters, because if vulnerable workers cannot access the tribunal system, then unlawful practice by less scrupulous employers – whether inadvertent or deliberately exploitative – will go unchecked, and more employers will be tempted to similarly disregard the rights of their workers when seeking to make organisational changes.

As employment barrister Natasha Joffe noted recently in a great blog post on Mumsnet, “since July 2013, thousands of people who would otherwise have done so have not complained about breaches of their employment rights. Worse than that, the fact that very few people can now bring claims at all means that the pressure on employers to comply with employment laws is vastly diminished”.

That is clearly unfair to the workers concerned, as well as to the great majority of employers who readily abide by the law and do their best for their workforce. But it also makes the work of our helpline team that much more difficult, and that much more important.

The report concludes that, to protect gender equality, tackle the widespread discrimination around pregnancy and maternity leave, and support the extension (from June) of the right to request flexible working and the new right (from April 2015) to shared parental leave, fees for claimants should – at the very least – be reduced to a nominal level.

The report also recommends that all new fathers should be eligible to at least two weeks of paid paternity leave at the time of or soon after the birth, without having to meet inordinately long service and notice requirements (currently, fathers have to have had 26 weeks service by the 15th week before the expected date of childbirth). And it calls on the Government, trade unions and employer bodies to jointly explore what more can be done to ensure that employers act legally and follow best practice when seeking to make changes to pay, hours or working patterns.

 

Making work actually work for all: a ‘families & work’ manifesto for 2015

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

With fewer than 400 days to go until the general election in May 2015, teams of strategists, number-crunchers and policy wonks in each of the main parties will be burning the midnight oil between now and the party conference season in September, when the party manifestos are likely to be finalised. And, to help them in their task, we at Working Families have come up with some key policy actions we believe the next government must take if work is actually to work for families – whatever their size and shape.

In recent decades, the world of work has changed enormously – in many ways for the better. But for all too many families, work simply isn’t working. Time-poor or cash-poor, or both, they struggle to achieve more than a barely tolerable work-life compromise. For them, the world of work has not changed anywhere near enough.

And for employers, the lack of flexibility in how we organise work brings very real costs in low productivity, lost skills and experience, and a reduced talent pool.

The next government needs to act to ensure that work actually works for all. Working parents, grandparents and carers need the twin currencies of time and money.  They need equality in the home, as well as at work. They need access to justice. And they need proper support with childcare.

So below we set out a draft ‘families & work’ manifesto for 2015, with 14 specific policy actions grouped under the headings of time, equality at work and at home, money, and childcare infrastructure. Over the next few weeks, we will be trying to pare these down to a handful of key policy calls – and we want your input!

Please take the time to read this draft manifesto, and either post a comment in the box below or get in touch with me at richard.dunstan@workingfamilies.org.uk  We are listening!

Time

Despite great progress in both the law and in 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.

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. We need to recognise the growing role of grandparents. And we need to increase the supply of flexible jobs.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Establish a new statutory right to a period of unpaid adjustment leave, to enable families to weather life crises such as the death, serious illness, or onset of disability of a partner, parent or child, or other major change in caring responsibilities, without having to give up work.
  2. Establish a new, statutory leave entitlement, similar to the existing right to unpaid parental leave, for grandparents.
  3. 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. Ministers should act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and encourage private sector employers to adopt Working Families’ Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline.
  4. 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 working fathers from Day One of their employment, enable leave to be taken on a part-time basis, and enable the sharing of leave with a close relative other than the child’s father.

Equality at work and at home

Take-up of paternity leave over the past decade has been pitifully low. 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. 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. To ensure equality in the home, 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. Yet access to justice in relation to workplace rights – including the right not to be unfairly dismissed – has been seriously eroded in recent years. To drive gender equality in the workplace, and tackle the widespread discrimination around pregnancy and maternity leave, this must be remedied.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Increase the current statutory entitlement to paid paternity leave, from two weeks to six weeks, with four 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 hefty, upfront fees for employment tribunal claimants introduced in July 2013, so as to reduce claimant fees to a nominal level.
  3. Undertake a review of the law on employment status, with a view to giving workers on zero-hours contracts, agency workers, freelancers, and home-workers  access to the same set of ‘family-friendly’ rights as other employees, as well as effective legal protection against unfair dismissal.
  4. Introduce a statutory right to time-off and facilities for breastfeeding mothers upon return to work, and clear legal protection against discrimination.

Money

To achieve a good work-life balance, working parents need a flexible job that pays well enough to support a family. They need the twin currencies of time and money. Yet Britain is suffering a crisis of low pay, which steals time from families and their children.

This crisis 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 substantially increased and better enforced, which means more human and other resources for enforcement.  And we need to start raising statutory maternity and paternity pay – currently paid at a shockingly low 60 per cent of the national minimum wage – towards wage-replacement levels. For with better and more equal pay will come better and more equal parenting.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Immediately 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. Rapidly raise the national minimum wage rate towards 60 per cent of median wages, and introduce a London supplement.
  3. Reform the work allowances in Universal Credit, to allow families to earn more before they have their support withdrawn.

Childcare infrastructure

Our childcare ‘system’ is simply not fit for purpose, with demand far outstripping the local supply of affordable childcare. And the childcare crunch is particularly acute for single parents, those working atypical hours, and parents of disabled children.

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. Our childcare crisis must not be solved by excessive time in non-parental care for children, but by more flexible working for parents and a better, more flexible supply of good quality, affordable childcare.

The government elected in 2015 should:

  1. Appoint a cabinet-level, cross-departmental minister for childcare. In recognition of the fact that childcare infrastructure facilitates economic activity, this minister should be based in both the Department for Education, and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.
  2. This minister should lead on developing a new national strategy on childcare, aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years.
  3. Appoint a minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the supply of good quality, affordable and appropriate childcare for disabled children.