Thank you, and thanks to Working Families for inviting me here to speak to you today.
Working Families is a fantastic organisation helping families balance work and family life and reaching out to create new and valued partnerships with employers.
As you celebrate 35 years of support for working parents this year, I want to reflect on how far we’ve come in that time and to celebrate the successes we’ve had together to improve family friendly policy and practices.
35 years ago there was no work life balance. There was no statutory maternity leave with maternity leave varying from company to company linked to length of service. The Thatcher government removed the maternity grant in 1987 and restricted the maternity allowance.
Many women suffered a pay and status penalty as a result; women predominantly stayed at home until children were older and the labour market was not at all family friendly. In fact, it stifled the potential of a generation of women who struggled to catch up after having children and the view that men went to work and women stayed at home.
Under the last Labour government great strides were made. Mothers and fathers were given statutory rights to maternity and paternity leave, we introduced flexible working and shared parental leave, and although there is still much more to do to ensure families have choices we set the framework to change employment practices and improve the lives of mothers and fathers.
On childcare Labour oversaw a massive expansion of early years education; more childcare; tax credits and vouchers to help meet costs and free early education for three and four year olds. Our extended schools programme helped parents source before and after school care to fit around the school day.
Austerity Harming Family Friendly
However, under this government, despite their ambition of shared parental leave which i support, I’m concerned that some of the hard won rights that organisations like Working Families have championed are under threat once more. Maternity leave and paternity leave are included in the Chancellor’s 1% uprating of support, hitting new mums and dads in the pocket at a time when new families particularly struggle with the cost of living.
Whilst Nick Clegg used to like to talk about alarm clock Britain, for many parents, this government is turning back the clock.
David Cameron might have talked about this being the most family friendly government ever but families and children will have seen £7 billion cut from support and services over this Parliament and life is getting harder, not easier for the vast majority of parents facing a cost of living crisis in Cameron’s Britain.
We have a childcare crunch hitting family budgets and making it even more difficult to get second earners, particularly mums, back into the workplace. Childcare costs are up 30% since 2010 whilst nursery prices have risen five times faster than wages.
Early years childcare places have fallen by 35,000 and finding sufficient wrap around childcare is a logistical nightmare for some.
David Cameron has no answers on childcare to help working families now. His tax free childcare offer won’t be introduced until late 2015 meaning no help on costs in this parliament.
The tax free offer does nothing for the over fives; it has a lot of dead-weight costs which will do nothing for work incentives for those at the top and it is too little to late to deal with rising prices. Indeed, IPPR have recently shown that parents will be spending more of their disposable income on childcare in 2018 in spite of this policy.
The interaction between tax free childcare and universal credit will make it very difficult for some families to help make work pay and will create a two tier system with the lowest income working families losing out.
In addition, the government is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater on tax free childcare – breaking the link between employers and childcare vouchers is deeply unpopular not just with business but with families too. The government have not said what the employer role will be in tax free childcare but many businesses, and parents, are deeply concerned about the impact of reducing their role in supporting parents in the workplace.
Even though Labour made great strides on childcare over many years childcare has not kept pace with parental demand or aspiration. Funding for childcare is complex and disjointed; finding quality, flexible and appropriate childcare is as difficult as ever for some, particularly parents who work atypical hours and parents with disabled children.
I recognise the need for a bigger vision on childcare and a bigger shake up of the system. This childcare revolution is something I’ll be focusing on in the coming months.
Labour’s offer to families at the next election is a strong sign of our intent and will include an extension of free childcare for three and four year olds with parents in work from 15 to 25 hours. This will mean that for the first time a parent will be able to work part time without having to worry about childcare costs. Worth £1500 per child this will help parents manage childcare costs, give parents stuck at home more opportunities and boost our economy.
To navigate the logistical nightmare of arranging before and after school care Labour will lay down in law a primary childcare guarantee ensuring that parents have a new right to before and after school care from their local school or nearby. This will help parents manage the struggle of arranging childcare that meets the needs of their families. I want to see quality and flexibility in this offer so that parents can balance work and caring and children can get the best out of this service guarantee.
On embedding culture change for Dads
Ensuring we have the right mix of family friendly policies is vital not only to family life but to the economy. For many parents, family friendly employers are a boon – helping them lead happy and fulfilling roles as parents and employees. This is good for business.
But new figures I’ve released today show dads particularly getting a bad deal at work with fathers nearly twice as likely to have requests for flexible working turned down. BIS figures show that only 17% of men had made a request to change their working arrangements in the previous two years compared with nearly a third of women showing that fathers are less likely to even consider taking up flexible working.
Childcare is not just an issue for mums. These figures show that dads are getting a raw deal when trying to balance work and family. Today, dads need a modern workplace and family-friendly policies and practices so they can get on at work as well as having time to be with their kids.
Working Families timely new report published today lays this reality bare. Fathers, particularly young fathers, are most resentful towards their employers about their work life balance and despite the right to flexible working almost a third of parents report that there is no flexible working on offer where they work.
This generation of dads feels short-changed by employers and the system. We know having more dads involved in childcare and home life is good for children but this should benefit employers too, making their employees happier and less resentful. Policy and practice needs to change to give more opportunities to fathers.
Creating a New Settlement on Family Friendly
So just as I’ve called for a revolution in childcare to help break the glass ceiling for many women lacking choice and opportunity because of sky high childcare costs, I want to work with colleagues in the BIS team to build a new compact between employers, government and parents to bring about a culture change that helps firms champion family friendly practices that I believe would help their businesses grow, give parents choices about returning to work and managing caring responsibilities throughout their lives, and ensure that government fulfills its responsibility to get the right childcare infrastructure in place to support and grow the economy.
I know from Working Families successful awards scheme that there are many businesses out there doing a great job championing parents and it is important that we share this best practice and learn how the best employers are getting the most out of all the talent in their businesses including working parents. I want to see a revolution in family friendly practices to support mums and dads in the workplace.
Labour’s Family Friendly Employers Summit
That’s why I’m announcing today that Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Business Secretary, Shadow BIS Minister Ian Murray and I will be hosting a major Family Friendly Summit with employers, family organisations, trade unions and professional bodies at the end of February to investigate how we can generate change that delivers benefits for business and employees. There are lots of great employers out there, big and small, who have weathered the economic downturn yet retained their commitment to family-friendly. I want us to build on this work to showcase the best. Business can make a real difference to making family life more manageable and government has a role too. It is our job to ensure that regulation is light touch, that the right infrastructure, including childcare is in place.
I look forward to working with you embed a step change that gives mothers and fathers real choices and options that matches their ambitions and demands to be great parents as well as successful workers.