Tag Archives: single parents

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


Where are all the part-time jobs?

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

On Monday, it was reported that, in a bid to tackle “the childcare crisis”, the  minister for education and childcare, Liz Truss, is “writing to every council in England to suggest that school nurseries extend their opening hours to allow parents to leave toddlers during the working day”.  According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers “believe that opening up the system will help provide tens of thousands more childcare places, which are urgently needed in many areas [and] will also enable mothers to go back into part-time work”.

Whilst almost any governmental initiative to tackle the dire shortage of affordable childcare is to be welcomed, one immediate response to Monday’s reports was: what part-time work? Because, as Laura Dewar of Single Parent Action Network (and a Working Families trustee) was quick to point out, single parents and others – such as parents of disabled children – who need to work part-time rather than full-time, often find there are relatively few part-time jobs on offer.  Which might seem counter-intuitive, given that there are now more part-time jobs in the UK economy than ever before.

As Duncan Weldon of the TUC demonstrated with five simple charts in an admirably clear blog post late last month, a sharp increase in the number and proportion of people working part-time is just one of several so-called compositional changes in the labour market over the past six years.   Since January 2008 the number of people working full-time has risen by 63,000, whilst the number working part-time has grown by 588,000.

However, this does not mean that more workers are working part-time out of choice or, due to their caring responsibilities, out of necessity.  Nor does it mean that there are more vacant part-time jobs on offer.  As the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, noted in a House of Commons debate on ‘job insecurity’ earlier this week, the number of people working part-time who actually want to work full-time “has grown by over 350,000” since 2010.  Furthermore, most of the increase in part-time employment has been amongst men – the number of women working part-time has remained remarkably steady since 2008, and even fell slightly in 2013.

Laura Dewar points to some startling figures on the DWP’s Universal Jobsmatch website, which suggest a lack of quality, part-time vacancies, especially at the intermediate level.  Of the 3,385 nursing jobs in London advertised on Universal Jobsmatch this week, only 154 (4.5 per cent) are listed as part-time.  Similarly, of the 3,142 teaching jobs in London, only 128 (four per cent) are listed as part-time.  And the situation is little different in other sectors and regions: of the 3,824 creative/design jobs advertised nationally this week, only 183 are listed as part-time; and of the 4,678 IT/software development vacancies in Manchester and the North West, a mere 20 are listed as part-time.

Whilst such figures might not be wholly reliable (i.e. some part-time jobs might not be advertised as such), they do illustrate the very real difficulty that many single parents – nine out of ten of whom are women – and others with exceptionally demanding care responsibilities face in trying to find suitable part-time work.  And that includes, as Laura notes, those non-working single parents “who are on job-seeking benefits and are obliged to take work as quickly as possible”.

So, what is to be done?  Is it really beyond the ken of government to bring about more flexible job advertising, especially in the public sector, to give not just single parents but also older women, parents of disabled children and others who need to work part-time access to a wider range of quality jobs?

Working Families has previously suggested there is a role for Jobcentre Plus to bring about a step-change in employer attitudes to the advertising and filling of vacancies, so as to widen the pool of talent from which they recruit and help people move into more financially sustainable work.  To that end, we are pleased to be working with DWP on piloting an advertising strapline – “Happy to Talk Flexible Working” – that will enable employers to be upfront about their flexible vacancies in job adverts.

Looking further ahead, we’d like to see a presumption, in the public sector at least, that all vacancies are advertised as being available on a part-time, job-share or flexible basis. With all the main parties committed to moving more single parents, disabled people and others off benefits and into work, that would seem to be the very least that a future government could do in return.