In the first of a new series examining the ‘future of work’, I wanted to explore what the various political parties are planning to do to ease the burden of childcare as well as levelling the working playing field between men and women – especially as the election clock is tick-tocking with increasing rapidity towards polling day on May 7th 2015.
In a previous post, I focused on the maternity leave conundrum facing freelancers – not a pretty prospect with statutory maternity benefits – which means very careful planning and saving for the arrival of future off-spring. It is because there is little or no provision for the self-employed workforce that we see freelancers returning to work as soon as they can after having a baby, unless they have the luxury of not needing to because their partner earns enough to keep the family afloat.
However, it is not just freelancers that face uncertainties when planning a family. The childcare nightmare confronts every parent– unless of course they have very willing, fit grandparents to take up the strain or can afford a full-time nanny. So, how do we manage and what have our politicians promised in their election manifestos to help ease our burden?
Childcare has been at the top of the British political agenda for more than a decade now, yet we still don’t have a universal provision in place. This time round, David Cameron is pledging to double the free childcare entitlement for three- and four-year-olds from 15 hours a week to 30 -beating Labour’s pledges of 25 free hours. The 30-hour pledge would be worth £5,000 to families from 2017, and the £350 million cost paid for by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for people earning more than £150,000. I know that when my own children turned three, those 15 free hours made a huge difference to my household budget, so 25 or 30 will be a significant boost.
Labour’s new pledge is for a National Primary Childcare Service to require schools under law to provide breakfast and after-school clubs, from 8am to 6pm. “Wraparound” care was a policy hangover from the last Labour government but it was voluntary and not all schools managed to find enough people to implement it. Of course it is not free – in most cases, parents still have to pay.
Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have made a policy pledge that would, I believe, make a real difference to working parents. They are offering 15 hours a week of free childcare between nine months and two years. This would cover the dodgy “maternity gap” – the time when maternity leave usually ends and the beginning of free childcare at aged three starts. It is trying to bridge this gap that sees many, many women give up work after having a child – something that is costly to the economy. The mothers have less disposable income and thus, spend less. Moreover, it is the outrageously priced childcare alternatives that usually are the career ‘deal-breaker’.
Aside from the Conservatives, both Labour and the Lib Dems are also considering daddies in their manifestos. Paternity leave will be doubled under Labour – going from two to four weeks, and they are also planning to raise paternity pay from £140 per week to more than £260. However, the Liberal Democrats are going even further. They would dedicate six weeks of parental leave exclusively to fathers. Dads wouldn’t be able to share the six weeks with the mother, providing an additional “use it or lose it” month, and also means total parental leave would be extended to 58 weeks. In a same sex couple, each partner would be entitled to six weeks’ reserved leave, with the rest available to share.
Seeing fathers as an integral part of a child’s early years care and upbringing, will go so much further in trying to smash the work-place glass ceiling that currently exists for women – whether they are mothers or not. The days where childcare fell solely to women are now behind us, and it is about time our places of work realised this and caught up with the times. That way, women could – for the first time – be on a real, even footing with their male colleagues and don’t have to sacrifice their career progression to ensure the future of the human race.