Is it possible to be family-friendly but unfriendly to women? Tomorrow, Nick Clegg will announce that the right to request flexible working will be extended to all employees, as signalled in the Queen’s speech earlier this year. This is good news, particularly for those grandparents who need to help with childcare responsibilities.
However, it appears that the government will not increase paid paternity leave or create a new ‘Daddy month’ of leave exclusively reserved for fathers (presumably because both incur Treasury expenditure). Instead, mothers will be able to transfer their maternity leave entitlement to a child’s father after two weeks. Although this leave may end up being called ‘flexible parental leave’ it will in fact be nothing of the sort: it will be transferred maternity leave. Fathers will have no entitlement to leave unless the mother has accrued maternity leave rights with an employer herself, making his rights entirely dependent on her work status.
Meanwhile, the chance to create a ‘use it or lose it’ block of leave for fathers, which all the evidence suggests is the only way of increasing the proportion of dads who take up parental leave when their children are very young, has been missed. In its absence, we can expect very little change in the UK’s highly unequal division of childcare and employment responsibilities between men and women. Mothers will remain the primary child-carers, and motherhood will continue to penalise their pay and career prospects. Policy will remain shaped by highly gendered assumptions about parenting.
It was also reported at the weekend that the government is considering some big reforms to childcare funding. Writing up a detailed briefing from government sources, James Forsyth noted in the Mail on Sunday that ministers are examining a substantial increase in childcare support for parents of preschool children. This could take the form of a voucher system for parents with three and four-year-olds, building on the existing entitlement to 15 hours’ free nursery education a week for these children, or tax relief for childcare. New Treasury money – in the order of £1.5 billion – would need to be found, but childcare funding could also be cut from families with school-age children.
Tax relief for childcare is straightforwardly regressive, of most use to parents with nannies. It is open to fraud and would have to be hugely expensive in order to have any significant impact on the supply of childcare. In fact, with no mechanism to control prices, it would more than likely just mean childcare costs more, with the government picking up the tab. To pay for all of this by cutting the childcare element of the universal credit for parents with school-age children would be obviously unjust (especially given the hit it has already taken).
Reforms to childcare and early learning should promote three objectives: improvements in child development, particularly for children from low-income homes; higher employment rates for parents; and greater equality between men and women. Keeping the threshold for expanded childcare entitlements at three years of age will mean more women are unable to stay connected to the labour market while their children are young – damaging their career prospects, reinforcing gender divides at home and at work, and denying children the benefits of high-quality early years provision where they can play and mix with other children.
As IPPR has recently argued, balancing these objectives means making progress in unison on flexible working, shared parental leave and high-quality, affordable childcare after children turn one. The government’s new focus on childcare is very welcome, but it could end up being unfriendly to women as it tries to be friendly to families.