Tag Archives: Universal Credit

#GE2015: What are the three main parties offering for working families?

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Last week, as the General Election campaign reached its mid-point, a small forest of trees was lost for ever as the three main political parties – first Labour, then the Conservatives, and finally the Liberal Democrats – published their manifestos. With a combined length of 330 pages containing some 75,000 words, it would be quicker – and, believe me, a lot more pleasurable – to read, for example, both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So, to save you the trouble (and time), we’ve been comparing the three manifestos against our own ‘families & work’ manifesto, Making work actually work for all.

That manifesto set 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.

So, how do the three manifestos measure up?

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.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the three parties sets out any new proposals to support and encourage the spread of flexible working practices. Indeed, the term ‘flexible working’ is mentioned only once, and even that is just a backwards-looking reference (by the Liberal Democrats) to the Coalition’s extension of the right to request flexible working to all workers in June 2014. This is deeply disappointing, as it is abundantly clear that take-up of flexible working remains heavily gendered, and that there are simply too few good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs available – a situation that puts single parents and parents of disabled children at a particular disadvantage.

It’s also disappointing that none of the three parties has taken up the idea of a right to adjustment leave. As our recent report Off balance demonstrates, much more needs to be done to support the parents of disabled children to either stay in work or re-enter the workforce. Eight out of ten non-working parents feel that they had no choice but to give up work upon, or very soon after, the diagnosis of their child. This common all-or-nothing scenario could be avoided by allowing such parents the chance to adjust to a change in their caring responsibilities. And cost analysis carried out for Working Families indicates that a legal right to up to six weeks of paid adjustment leave for the parents of disabled children could result in a potential annual net gain to the economy of £500 million.

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.

Here there is (relatively) good news, even if it isn’t terribly new. The Liberal Democrats repeat the pledge made in their October 2014 pre-manifesto of an extra four weeks of paternity leave, to be paid at the current (ludicrously low) rate of £138 per week, and Labour confirm their February 2015 announcement of an extra two weeks, to be paid at a more respectable £260 per week (roughly equivalent to the full-time minimum wage). However, the Conservatives are silent on the issue.

Only the Liberal Democrats make any mention of shared parental leave, and even then that is mostly in relation to the Coalition’s introduction of the new scheme, rather than any future plans. However, there is a welcome statement that, “while changes to parental leave should be introduced slowly to give business time to adjust, our ambition is to see paternity and shared parental leave become a ‘Day One’ right’”. And there is a very welcome (if  vague) promise to “introduce a right to paid leave for carers”.

All three parties pledge to work to close the gender pay gap, and Labour’s separate Manifesto for Women contains a very welcome promise to “consult on allowing grandparents who want to be more involved in caring for their grandchildren to share in parents’ unpaid parental leave, enabling them to take time off work without fear of losing their job”. See this recent guest post by Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus for more on this important issue.

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.

Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the parties makes even a nod to raising statutory maternity, paternity and parental pay towards parity with the minimum wage. This would be an ambitious policy call at the best of times, let alone when all the main parties are committed to varying degrees of further austerity in public spending. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do at least say they would exempt maternity, paternity and parental pay from the one per cent cap on the uprating of social security benefits that they both say they would extend until April 2018. However, as noted previously on this blog, Labour’s pledge to pay statutory paternity leave at almost twice the current rate opens a door that we will work hard to open wider in the years ahead.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledge to complete the roll-out of Universal Credit, though neither party sets out any new ideas on how the new system might be improved. Labour is more circumspect, stating: “We support the principle behind Universal Credit – that there should be a smooth transition into work – but it must be affordable and fit for purpose, so we will pause and review the programme”. And the Liberal Democrats say they would review the sanctions regime to “ensure there are no league tables or targets for sanctions”, and would “introduce a ‘yellow card’ warning so people are only sanctioned if they deliberately and repeatedly break the rules”.

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.

As expected, all three manifestos include a childcare offer. That of the Liberal Democrats is perhaps the most ambitious, setting out an ultimate goal of 20 hours of free childcare a week for all parents with children aged from two to four-years, and all working parents from the end of paid parental leave (nine months) to two years”. However, there is no timetable for reaching this goal.

Labour’s manifesto reiterates the party’s longstanding pledge to increase the existing entitlement of free childcare for parents of three- and four-year-olds, from 15 to 25 hours per week. And, to the surprise of many, the Conservative manifesto outbids this, with a pledge of 30 hours per week. However, with the Conservatives reportedly having costed this pledge of an extra 15 hours at just £350 million – less than half the £800 million that Labour says it would need for its extra ten hours – some critics have suggested that this pledge is simply “too good to be true”. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledge to implement the Coalition’s tax-free childcare scheme, set to come into force later this year, but Labour’s manifesto does not mention the scheme.

Sadly, none of the three parties makes any mention of the additional childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children. This is something that we will be working hard to remedy, whoever forms the next government.

[We will assess the manifestos of the other political parties in a future post]

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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]

 

 

 

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.