Change work to change life chances

Written by: Angela Rayner on 30 November, 2012
Filed under Childcare, Economy

The Tory-led government talks about us all being in it together and yet it feels very much like this is not the case. We have seen tax breaks for the more well off, watering down of employment rights seen as a burden on business and tax avoidance from large multi-million pound companies and individual wealth amongst the top 5% of earners gaining an increased gap from the rest of the population.

This doesn’t feel fair to the majority of people living in the UK and it is to Labour that we must look for an alternative. So what can Labour offer?

Maternity Discrimination

One of the key areas that would gain popular support with women voters in particular would be to enforce the maternity rights to mothers that already exists but to also enhance this in terms of equality and pay.

Specifically Labour should publically endorse the message that making a woman redundant because she is pregnant or a new mother is unlawful; actively publicise legal obligations on pregnancy discrimination to employers and refer them to resources such as the EHRC pregnancy tool kit; to actively publicise to pregnant employees their rights in facing redundancy; to provide information to public bodies on their legal responsibilities in relation to pregnancy discrimination and ensure that their performance in this area is included when reporting of their compliance with the gender equality duty; to monitor the incidence of discrimination against pregnant women, women on maternity leave, and women back at work for less than three months to ensure that the law is being complied with.

Agreement should be reached on both maternity paid leave and the length of that paid leave to be improved given that we are in tough economic times.

Affordable Childcare

This is clearly very high on both Mums and Dads agendas. Childcare costs are amongst the highest in Europe and a real concern to both working and non-working mums and dads who are trying to gain employment.

One country that seems to tackling the issue is Denmark, Childcare has moved from a system of cash subsidy to one that offers a national entitlement to a childcare place with a high quality provider and capped parental costs, with fee relief for low income families. Parents are entitled to a childcare place when their child turns one until they start school. There is a level playing field on funding and regulation, with a mix of centre based care and child minders. The cost of Childcare is capped, so that parents pay around £200-£300 a month for childcare, equivalent to 7-10% of their disposable income.

Parents are also entitled to generous, flexible leave. Parents on low incomes are able to take a full year off work after having a baby, the options for childcare are attractive and affordable, and the workplace culture is family friendly. Most parents receive at least six months full pay, co funded by employers and the state.

We have to decide as a nation that childcare is put as a high priority.

Flexible working

The concept of flexible working has been around for some time but its application has been patchy in a lot of organisations and there still needs to be some education of employers in the advantages of family-friendly policies and flexible working. There is already law that supports requests for flexible working but extensions to home working, working at different times where business need allow. Innovative solutions – such as some employers having three days a year where employees who have childcare or carers responsibilities are allowed to take time off for emergencies as they arise, but then make the time up that they have taken later when back in work – encourage employees to ask for “stuck not sick days”. Other solutions are compressed hours where employees complete their hours within four days instead of five and use the other day for family responsibilities.

Utopian state on Childcare and family friendly support?

To find a country with near utopian policies on Childcare, one can look to Scandinavia again, this time to Sweden. Swedish policy provides support for parents of all ages of children. Generous paid parental leave, reduced working hours for parents with young children are followed up with high quality childcare and extensive out-of-school-hours care at a low price to Swedish families. On average the parental fee amounts to 11% of the cost of a childcare place according to a recent OECD report the lowest fees in any OECD countries.

These policies are expensive and Sweden spends 2% of GDP on formal day care and 0.8% of GDP on parental leave costs – the highest in Europe. The comprehensive support for families in Sweden trying to reconcile their work and family commitments is impressive with 73% of women in work and 97% of households with children have someone in work. Another impressive figure is the 80% of sole mothers who are in employment and child poverty rates which are low at 4% compared to the UK rate of 20.9% in 2011. Whilst the Swedish model is expensive they have prioritised Childcare as a major driver in their countries ambitions for the future and it is clearly paying off. It is a decision that the UK will soon have to make.

In times of economic restraint we need to look at what we prioritise. As a nation we need to ensure we act responsibly and those with the broadest shoulders carry the heaviest burden. We need to balance our need to get Britain working with the need to assist working people to maintain decent employment and a reasonable standard of living and work life balance. For women this can be a greater challenge as we continue to struggle for equality in the boardroom, in education and in pay. We work to live not live for work. Without vital changes to the current system we will miss out on a more productive society and lost income from the ability for all women to be active equal members of the workforce. The above changes are step towards equality and the cultural change that is required.