Tag Archives: Family-friendly

#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.


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.


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”.


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.


Grandparents & childcare: will our politicians learn from their electioneering?

In this guest post, Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus argues that politicians have yet to understand just how reliant many working parents are on grandparents for childcare.

Last week, journalist Gaby Hinsliff let us into one of those elephant-sized hidden truths of the general election campaign when she tweeted:

“This election’s basically reliant on grandparents: every MP/journo/aide with kids I’ve spoken to recently basically reliant on them for campaign childcare.”

So, electioneering doesn’t fit neatly into formal childcare hours – 15 hours of nursery care or the 8am – 6pm that a childminder might offer. Surprised? Yet dependent though they may be, how many of those politicos stop to think whether those grandparents deserve a bit of recognition for what they do? Or (perish the thought) what they would do without them to rely on? Not much campaigning after 6pm methinks, that’s for sure.

Every day across the UK, working parents rely heavily upon grandparents for childcare. Our grandparents – and, let’s be honest about it, often it’s our grandmothers – are the engine room of the UK economy keeping those ‘hard working families’ ‘hard working’. A recent Grandparents Plus Survation poll found that one in five working parents – that’s two million of them – would give up their jobs if they didn’t have grandparents to rely on. A further 20 per cent would reduce their hours. And no surprises to see that it’s mothers more than fathers who take the hit – but there were still 15 per cent of dads saying that they would give up work.

So what’s the problem? Grandparents do it for love, they enjoy it etc. Well, of course they do. But the challenge for us all, and for government is that grandparents aged 55-64 provide the lion’s share of the childcare with those aged 65-74 next in line. There are eight million grandparents providing childcare and most of them are now expected to be staying in work rather than providing childcare in their leisurely retirement. We are expecting these generations of grandparents to be both caring more and working longer – and it doesn’t stack up.

Another Grandparents Plus poll, this time in partnership with Family and Childcare Trust and Save the Children, found that 14 per cent of grandparents had either given up a job, reduced their hours or taken days off sick to provide childcare. That’s 1.9 million grandparents. Again, it’s grandmothers who are most likely to say they gave up work or reduced their hours, but 400,000 grandfathers did so too.

But look even closer at those who are doing the intensive caring and you see that it is younger grandmothers (those in their 50s or even 40s) who are particularly likely to be providing longer hours of childcare. DWP research found that low income mothers are twice as likely to rely exclusively on informal childcare when they go back to work after maternity leave. Formal childcare is often beyond their reach. Either it is too expensive, or (rather like our politicos – see above) it doesn’t suit their anti-social working hours, or they are in very insecure employment and simply cannot commit to a formal childcare arrangement. Those on low pay also have less job security so how can they pay a childminder if they don’t know if they are working tomorrow?

So what’s the solution? Grandparents Plus has consistently argued for a period of grandparental leave which can be taken flexibly by grandparents who are providing childcare for working parents. Alternatively we also argue that if we see the need for shared parental leave, and conceded the principle of transferability then why not make it possible for parents to share unpaid parental leave (i.e. the 18 weeks that can be taken until a child is five) with a grandparent? This would provide some flexibility and would also enable grandparents to support when formal childcare often cannot (e.g. if a child is sick).

Together with a meaningful investment in formal childcare we could create an infrastructure of support for working parents that they can rely on and that responds to the reality of their daily lives. By doing so we would be helping our workforce’s ‘missing millions’ mothers and grandmothers stay in work. This in turn would also help employers as they would see reduce staff absences and improve retention rates.

When we ask grandparents, the public and parents a clear majority supports the policy and amongst those most affected, there is strong support. We just need our politicians (yes those mentioned above so dependent on grandparents) to get it too.

Sam Smethers is Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus.

Paternity leave & shared parenting: Labour boldly opens door marked ‘Do Not Open’

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

There must have been much grinding of teeth among Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs on Monday morning, as Labour leader Ed Miliband garnered acres of advance media coverage for a speech in which, it was reported, he would commit a Labour government to doubling statutory paternity leave, from two to four weeks. For, not only did the Liberal Democrats adopt an arguably more impressive pledge to treble paternity leave to six weeks as long ago as September, but – as far as I can tell – Miliband delivered no such speech on Monday.

There’s certainly no transcript of any speech, nor even a press release. But the media had clearly been given the same song sheet to sing from, with everyone from the BBC to the Daily Mail reporting that Miliband would, later on Monday, say that:

Thanks to the last Labour government, fathers have two weeks’ paid paternity leave. Millions of families have benefited, with parents saying this has helped them support each other, share caring responsibilities and bond with their children. But the money isn’t great, and too many dads don’t take up their rights because they feel they have to go back to work so they can provide for their family.

The move was largely welcomed by media commentators as a positive step in the right direction, with only the Telegraph departing violently from the script to lambast the new pledge as a “spectacularly bad” response to the Coalition’s policy of shared parental leave, which it described as “the most progressive new parent support policy that Britain has ever had.”  And, while the four in 10 new fathers who will not qualify for shared parental leave might well disagree with that assessment, the Telegraph does have a point. For, as a number of more thoughtful (and knowledgeable) analysts have noted since Monday, an extra two weeks of paternity leave does not a revolution in shared parenting make. Labour’s proposed four weeks of paternity leave would still leave the UK lagging some way behind Norway, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Iceland and Luxembourg.

Indeed, to at least one (essentially sympathetic) blogger, the move appeared to be less about progressive policy-making than creating “a headline to help persuade disaffected supporters to vote Labour in May”. And it is certainly true that there was no mention of paternity leave in last summer’s National Policy Forum report, which is supposed to form the basis of Labour’s general election manifesto. Yet the new policy, as now espoused by Miliband, was first proposed by left-leaning think tank IPPR in June last year. Curiouser and curiouser, but polling by YouGov confirms that extending paternity leave is popular with both men and women.

The employer lobby groups were not terribly impressed either, with the never knowingly understated British Chambers of Commerce grumbling that “well-meaning proposals such as this create very real costs for businesses, which can in turn lead to reduced productivity, reduced growth and fewer jobs”. Heavens above! And the Federation of Small Businesses certainly has a point when it says that “altering paternity leave so soon after introducing shared parental leave has the potential to cause confusion amongst businesses that are only getting to grips with the most recent changes [i.e. shared parental leave].”

However, as Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson noted, “businesses need to go with the grain of modern family life,” and our research confirms there is an appetite among young fathers, in particular, to do their share of childcare. Increasing paternity and parental leave creates an opportunity for businesses to help a core group of employees “give their best at work by recognising that they also want to give their best at home.” British bosses (and their lobby groups) should perhaps heed the words of this Swedish CEO, who fully expects his male employees to “take six months off at some point during their child’s early life”, and is in no doubt that “when our employees – both male and female – take time off to be with their children, it’s good for us in the long-term”.

In any case, the real radicalism in Miliband’s announcement is not the extra two weeks of paternity leave – as welcome as that is – but his pledge that all four weeks would be paid at £260 per week, the equivalent of a 40-hour week on the minimum wage and almost double the current, shockingly low rate of £138.18 per week. Because, if Labour now considers it necessary to pay fathers at least £260 per week to get them to take their full entitlement to paternity leave, as it surely is, then the same undoubtedly applies to shared parental leave. And it is inconceivable that a future government could pay fathers £260 per week when taking shared parental leave unless it paid women at least the same when they take maternity or shared parental leave.

Perhaps unthinkingly, Labour has boldly gone where no mainstream political party has gone before. Without even delivering a speech, Ed Miliband and his advisers have erected a neon-lit question mark over the ludicrously low rate at which statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave are paid.

And there’s now no way to turn off the power.



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

Civil Service sets benchmark for Shared Parental Leave

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

With opinion on the likely impact of the new right to shared parental leave (SPL) sharply divided between those who anticipate a game-changer (of whom Working Families are at the forefront) and those who expect yet another damp squib, last week Nick Clegg gave the optimists reason to be cheerful with a heavily-trailed speech in which he ‘announced’ that all civil service employees will be offered equal enhanced SPL pay.

Speaking to an audience of public sector workers – including teachers, social workers, local government and NHS staff – the Deputy Prime Minister stated that, from April 2015:

The civil service will be offering equal parental pay and support to all its employees – male and female. As a result, it will no longer just be new mums working in the civil service who can take maternity leave at full pay. Dads will also be able to benefit from enhanced pay for shared parental leave, if both parents choose to carve up their time between them. This means more fathers will be able to afford to take time off to spend caring for their new born children.

In fact, Clegg was recycling old news, the move having first been announced in early September by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, when launching the Talent Action Plan, a central plank of the Government’s ongoing civil service reform programme. Maude stated then:

The civil service’s adoption of the new entitlement to shared parental leave will go far beyond statutory requirements. For the first time, civil servants across government, at all levels, will have the option to split the six months’ full pay usually offered to women for maternity leave. The move [will give] parents flexibility around how they share childcare responsibilities and ensure both parents can retain strong links with the labour market.

Old news or new news, the move is definitely good news. It sets a benchmark for the support of new parents that many private sector employers – both large and small – will need to follow if SPL is to usher in a new era of more equally shared parenting.

The omens are not great. One recent survey of human resources professionals indicated that only 48% of employers offer enhanced maternity pay for up to six months, and that a mere 8% offer enhanced pay to fathers using the existing right to additional paternity leave (APL). And, of course, by excluding the great majority of SMEs and micro-employers without any in-house human resources specialist, such surveys tend to paint a somewhat rose-tinted picture of the wider labour market reality. Research commissioned by the DWP and BIS, published in 2011, indicates that only one in three of all women taking maternity leave from work receive any enhanced maternity pay from their employer.

Then again, another recent survey by Personnel Today and ExpertHR indicated that “most employers that offer enhanced maternity pay will also offer enhanced shared parental leave pay”.  The survey found that 56% of those currently offering enhanced maternity pay would also offer enhanced SPL pay to fathers. Reacting to that survey, Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson noted that “shared parental leave will only be a success if fathers are not significantly financially worse off when taking it, and when their employers are wholly supportive of them doing so.”

Ed Bowyer, employment partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, added: “Businesses may be waiting to get a sense of what their competitors are likely to do, but they will need to decide their own policy sooner rather than later.” However, it was “encouraging” that most employers who enhance maternity pay and have already decided their policy are also intending to enhance shared parental leave pay: “This is likely to mean that take-up of SPL will be greater than has been the case for additional paternity leave, where paid leave has very much been the exception rather than the rule.”

It certainly won’t be difficult for take-up of SPL to be greater than that of APL, which has been negligible. As the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) noted in its November 2012 impact assessment of the then proposed system of SPL:

The current system of maternity, paternity and parental leave cannot be described as flexible and does little to encourage shared parenting in the first year of a child’s life. It also perpetuates a gender imbalance in terms of attachment to, and position in, the labour market; reinforcing the culture that women do the majority of caring and are more likely to be absent from the labour force as a result of having children. In so doing, the current system contributes to unequal labour market outcomes for men and women in the longer term.

So, we all have to hope that the Civil Service’s welcome approach on SPL gives the new system a much-needed boost off the launch pad. Time will tell, but in the meantime much credit is due to Nick Clegg, Nicky Morgan, Jo Swinson and others within government who have driven the move towards equality for Civil Service parents, and so provided a benchmark for employers to emulate or – heaven’s above – improve upon.



‘My children are my world, but without my career I can’t afford to pay for their world.’

In this guest post, Louisa Symington-Mills of Citymothers, the network for working mothers in City professions, explains what led her to last month’s launch of Cityfathers.

I created Citymothers in late 2012 following my own experience of returning to work in banking after the birth of my first child. I find it hard to pinpoint the source of the idea, which arrived in my head one dark November morning.

Certainly, when I returned to work after maternity leave, I felt isolated from the networking opportunities I had previously enjoyed, due to the simple practical problem of networking events in the City so often taking place after work. Pre-baby, I hadn’t thought twice about attending events in the evening, but now things felt very different. Even if the logistical challenges of finding a babysitter could be addressed, summoning the energy to support a late night generally couldn’t be.

At the same time, I was struck by the lack of support for working mothers in the City. Having returned to work after a four-month maternity leave with a flexible working arrangement (working three days a week in London and two days at home), the ease with which my arrangement was signed off by HR meant that I didn’t foresee the intense effort involved in actually making it work (and by making it work, I mean keeping my team happy), day by day.

As someone who had spent the previous six years navigating an upward trending career path with confidence, I was naively unprepared for the challenges of being a working mother. Surely it wasn’t just me? And so it became apparent that there was a need for both networking and relevant events, with a new organisation that could offer these opportunities at convenient times of day. So I started Citymothers, and it started to grow.

As time went on however, it became clear that we leaving someone out of the work/life balance equation – the Cityfather. Now, being a working mother is not easy – as a mother of two young children aged nine months and two years, and with a full time job in private equity, I can certainly testify to the challenges. But being a working father is possibly harder still.

Flexible working arrangements – for many, the key to a happier office and home life balance – can carry huge stigma, and all the more so for men.  I know fathers who say goodbye to their children on a Sunday night and greet them again on a Saturday morning, an unsurprising but sad side-effect of a City job with long hours and a commute.

Their working wives, by contrast, often afforded some flexibility by their employers, make an exhaustive (and exhausting) effort to be more present and involved in their children’s lives – working part-time, from home, or full time with a structured gap each evening to put the children to bed before resuming work remotely. And this perhaps is why women who work and have children are labelled ‘working mothers’, whilst the equivalent label is rarely applied to men.

I asked one Cityfather I know – one of a very few I’m aware of who has any kind of flexible working arrangement – if he would share his thoughts on why it is so rare for City men to work flexibly. “I’m so sorry, but work would take a really dim view of my situation being publicised”, was the response. And he’s not the only one to feel this way.

In the run up to the launch of Cityfathers last month, we carried out a survey of working fathers in the City and Canary Wharf. The survey revealed a City culture of stigma, where even a request for flexible working was thought to signal an end to a man’s career.  Of a total 750 respondents, just under half said their work/life balance was less than satisfactory.

Tellingly, less than 30 per cent said their experience of being a working father was positive, with the vast majority saying it was either ‘ok – a work in progress’ or ‘a struggle’. Just one year before all new fathers have the right to share parental leave with their partner, the survey found men in City professions divided as to whether they would consider taking up shared parental leave, despite nearly half saying that ‘missing their children’ is their biggest daily challenge.

There were lots of other interesting comments and observations, far too many to repeat here, but for me one comment from a working father stands out:

‘It’s a daily choice between career and family – I have to sacrifice one or the other. My children are my world, but without my career I can’t afford to pay for their world.’

By talking about why the City should embrace flexibility, offering encouragement and peer support to those who wish to be more involved in family life as well as progress a City career, and education and guidance to management, this culture can be changed for the benefit of everyone.

After all, it is not only children who stand to gain from having more involved fathers – the benefits of flexible working for employers have been proven in terms of employee productivity and talent retention. In providing a forum for working fathers to meet others with similar ambitions and priorities, and to hear from thought leaders both within and outside the City, we hope Cityfathers – along with Citymothers – will be a vital part of this process.

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.


Flexible working: Is it really such a stretch?

In this guest post, Matt Hawkins, Campaigns Officer at Gingerbread, reports on the online discussion of flexible working  hosted by Gingerbread earlier this week.

Single parents are often the sole earners and childcare providers in their family, so flexible working can be a lifeline in helping them to get a decent job whilst meeting their care responsibilities. And we know that adopting flexible working policies brings big benefits to employers, helping them to recruit and retain an engaged workforce.

So why, in 2014, are flexible work opportunities so scarce? How do we move part time jobs out of the low paid, low skilled sectors? How do we finally find a cure for the 9-5 obsession and embrace alternative working options?

As part of Gingerbread’s campaign to Make it work for single parents, we organised an online discussion to try and answer some of those questions. The discussion brought together some of the leading voices in the field: Siobhan Endean, National Officer for Equalities at Unite; Jonathan Swan, Policy and Research Manager at Working Families; Hannah Murphy, Policy Adviser at the CBI; and Nicola Kilvington, Head of Strategy, Performance, and Information at Camden Council.

Grounding the discussion with an overview of the current provision of flexible work options in the UK, the panel agreed that these could be described, at best, as “patchy”. Jonathan reported that Working Families hear from over 3000 people every year who have been badly treated at work because they put in a request to work flexibly. Many of these calls come from women who were dismissed after seeking to return from maternity leave on a part-time basis.

Part of the reason for this, said Siobhan, is the lack of any real legislative framework to help spread and support flexible work practices. Right to request is only available after 6 months’ employment and outside of that the regulations are fairly limited. Where flexible working practices have spread in recent years they have often been a very one-sided affair. The growth in zero-hour contracts, both Siobhan and Jonathan agreed, is a largely unwelcome trend. Whilst on the surface they appear to be “flexible”, that flexibility lies mainly with the employer with little or no rights being offered to the employee.

It became clear from the discussion that what is needed in Britain is a cultural shift away, as Hannah put it, from “outdated assumptions about ‘putting in the hours’ in the office” to one that embraces the benefits of flexible working, both for employees and employers.

The problem is: how do we achieve such a cultural change?

On the one hand, government legislation can boost the rights of workers to request flexible work and set the gold standard that employers are expected to live up to. Siobhan would like to see jobs advertised as flexible from day one. This would help to tackle the problem that many employees don’t ask for flexible work because they’re worried their employer will disapprove of such a request. Nicola emphasised the role that public sector employers, such as local councils, can play in providing a leading example to their local businesses and contractors of how flexible working can operate in practice.

In addition, Nicola pointed out that there are organisations out there dedicated to offering advice and support to employers who want to shift their business structure over to a more flexible model. These organisations, such as the Timewise Foundation, can assist by sharing best practice and linking up organisations who are all working towards greater flexibility.

Yet, as Hannah pointed out, employers continue to cite their own objections to flexible working and these cannot be ignored. Employers often feel they are being asked to perform a difficult juggling act: on the one hand meeting the needs of employees that apply for flexi-time whilst making sure that this doesn’t put additional strain on those that don’t.

The panel agreed that tackling these kinds of difficulties depends on communication. Where there is a workforce union in operation then they can negotiate with employers to find the best solution that works for everyone. Nicola also stated that there is a need for employers to improve their reporting processes so that lessons can be learned from the success, or otherwise, of flexible work requests that have been granted in the past. Siobhan added that the Acas guide on flexible working is a particularly useful resource and that she’d like to see more of the same being produced by central government.

Ultimately, the panel acknowledged that a great deal of work will need to be done to move from the standard 9-5 hours culture to a more flexible model. That shift is going to depend on a mix of government leadership, improved communication channels between employers and employees, and the sharing of best practice between organisations. Each ingredient will help us to travel in the right direction and move towards a tipping point where flexible work becomes an everyday part of work in Britain.


Age matters: the TUC report on women over 50 in the workplace

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer, Working Families

Yesterday morning, I spent an enjoyable and highly productive two hours with a bunch of fellow policy wonks from member organisations of our Families & Work Group, throwing around policy ideas for what will eventually form the Working Families manifesto for the 2015 General Election.  We agreed and refined some key policy asks, rejected a few others, and ate a lot of biscuits.  OK, I ate a lot of biscuits.

With Group members from the TUC, the National Childbirth Trust, Maternity Action, Every Disabled Child Matters, the Mother’s Union, Gingerbread, the Family & Childcare Trust, and the union UNISON, there was a lot of expertise around the table.  So I returned to my desk with a bundle of notes and a skeleton manifesto on ‘Families & Work’ already half-formed.  Over the coming weeks, we will refine manifesto calls on rights to family leave, childcare, family-shaped jobs, good work (including fair pay), and access to justice.

A few hours and a lot of emails later, I came to an email from the TUC, with an embargoed copy of their report, out today, on women over 50  in the workplace.  In early 2013, the TUC embarked on an innovative project called Age Immaterial, to “examine the issues facing [the some 4.2 million] women over 50 in the workplace and create an evidence base for policy proposals relating to this often overlooked group”.  The new report is the culmination of 12 months of highly creative work.  And, for a policy wonk busy working on a General Election manifesto – that is, a policy wonk very like me – it’s a veritable goldmine.

The report’s policy recommendations include:

  • There should be a new statutory right to a period of ‘adjustment leave’ to cover bereavement, sudden changes to caring responsibilities, and other crisis situations. Tick!
  • Grandparents should have a new statutory leave entitlement, similar to parental leave. Tick!
  • Employers should strive to advertise all jobs on a flexible basis, with public sector employers taking a lead on this. Tick!
  • More employers should adopt the Living Wage, and the National Minimum Wage should be “substantially increased”. Tick!
  • Workers on zero-hours contracts, agency workers, freelancers and homeworkers should be entitled to the same floor of rights, including all family -friendly rights  and legal protection against unfair dismissal. Tick!
  • Enforcement of statutory rights for all vulnerable workers must be improved and, to ensure women who face discrimination in the workplace are able to seek justice, employment tribunal fees must be abolished. Tick!

I could go on – there are another 13 great policy recommendations.  But you’d do better to just read the report.  Do it, now.