Family Friendly working in 2014 – How are we doing?

Submitted by beth on Mon, 24/11/2014 - 12:54

24 November 2014

By Michelle Singleton, Assistant Policy Officer at UNISON.

Since 1998 there have been great improvements that have transformed family friendly policy and childcare provision, there is far more support than ever before. New legislation on flexible working, parental leave and proposals on more support towards the costs of childcare are welcome but is it all good news and are there still areas yet to be tackled?

The Children and Families Act, passed this year, has introduced many welcome advances for working families. As well as extending the right to request flexible working for all, we now have shared parental leave which will mean that families can effectively choose to share the 52 weeks of both the paid and unpaid leave previously reserved solely for the mother as maternity leave. The mother can now simply confirm that she is willing to stop taking maternity leave and move to the new “shared parental leave” which either parent can take. This is all good news along with the recognition for surrogates leave and additional leave for partners to attend 2 antenatal appointments (in recognition that there are at least 2 milestone appointments where key scans are taken).

Whilst this is definitely all very welcome, and recognises many of the issues trade unions and other groups have been campaigning on for many years (such as the wonderful Working Families who have consistently punched way above their weight in this area), is it all untrammelled good news and are there still some areas where we have far to go?

Well, one very disappointing change that snuck in with the extension of the right to request flexible working is the change to the status of any appeal of a refusal – this has been taken out of the legislation and is now only covered in “guidance”. Whilst employers could always refuse a request, using a number of very wide ranging prescribed reasons, this statutory right to appeal was, in practice, the biggest lever to ensure that employers weren’t just dismissing requests out of hand without proper consideration. It was a legally enforceable responsibility to give proper consideration to any request – if an employer was found not to have followed that process then there was the potential of a successful legal claim. Now the appeal process has been relegated to a guideline and that is definitely a retrograde step.

Of course in practice we know that where good employers recognise the many business benefits of allowing staff some flexibility when they most need it then the right to appeal rarely becomes an issue and thankfully most requests are accommodated without the need to appeal but where an employer doesn’t understand the mutual benefits and harbours a deep mistrust of flexible working or just wants to avoid having to think about it, the statutory footing of the appeal process was what forced them to think gain and in many cases resulted in some kind of mutually agreed resolution – it got intransigent employers around the table. Now that it is just a guideline I’m not sure employers will feel so inclined to bother.

Another, aspect that should perhaps raise eyebrows is the detail of the new “Tax free Childcare payments”. UNISON wasn’t alone in questioning the benefit of subsidizing childcare for couples who potential earn up to £299,999.99 rather than targeting the lower paid more. However, it is perhaps more surprising still that such couples can use this allowance (up to £6,000 per year per family) towards the cost of their boarding school fees. The guidance suggests that for day nurseries any hours not explicitly enabling work will be discounted as ineligible but the entire boarding element of private schooling is eligible – essentially including the “babysitting” costs along with the “essential to work” childcare costs. Was this the intention and if it was, is it the wisest use of the limited resources available?

All that aside, it seems that politicians of all colours are now recognising the economic as well as social benefits of accommodating carers in the workforce with most parties proposing plans to assist with childcare if nothing else but there are still some areas that urgently need to be recognised that do not appear to be on anyone’s radar such as;

  • The paucity of childcare options for shift workers and the increasingly casualised workforce (Zero Hours Contracts being the most obvious example). Just the waiting lists, requirement for deposits, declining options for unusual hours or an irregular work patterns means that many of these workers fall between the cracks of our current system.
  • Children with additional needs are not being catered for in all formal subsidised settings as additional funding for support within school hours is not extended to after school provision and private providers are not sufficiently incentivised to provide affordable additional support for children with special needs.
  • The complete lack of a coherent policy of support for parents in education – both parents have to be in work to get any of the financial support for childcare currently on offer – so where is the support for people needing to increase their skills to find that employment?
  • The persistence of part time work being lower skilled / paid work – greater female workforce participation is not only a matter of working or not working, a policy objective of any party should be to ensure equality of access to good work and work of equal value to men. It is still true that mothers returning to work are more likely to downgrade positions or to be employed in a part time role. The prevalence of low quality part time work amongst mothers has a number of negative consequences and is a large contributing factor to the persistent gender pay gap in this country.

Whilst unions have a huge role to play in bargaining locally for improvements on the base line legislation in many areas, until some of these most basic issues are recognised by the government of the day then we still have a long way to go in our quest for a family friendly economy.

Michelle Singleton is an Assistant Policy Officer at UNISON – The public service union.

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