It is not just home secretary David Blunkett who is fighting over the children. Last week’s pre-budget report from chancellor Gordon Brown effectively fired the starting gun on what looks likely to be a general election dominated by children and the votes of their working parents.
Brown and Margaret Hodge, the children’s minister, sketched out a 10-year strategy on childcare in a bid to make Labour the party of working parents. Their plans come on the back of the Tories’ own, but very different, proposals to help parents achieve an appropriate “work-life balance”.
All these policy aspirations are very laudable – if not slightly embarrassing for the Government at a time when Blunkett is trying to strike a balance between his own private life and work. These policies are designed for the so-called “ordinary” voters, giving the main political parties a lift and making them seem down-to-earth and socially aware.
But the more important question is: what does this mean for employers and HR managers? Given that the main parties are now all apparently committed to giving staff more flexibility, regardless of which party wins the election, companies are going to have to adjust over the next few years to very different working practices.
Last month, Michael Howard stole a march on Tony Blair – albeit only for a few hours – by making his first major speech on childcare. He appeared to have deliberately picked the same day that the prime minister was due to unveil details of Labour’s package for working parents. It was seen as one of the rare moments when the Tory leader, who posed with young children at a school, had scuppered Blair on an issue that has always been regarded as a Labour stronghold.
But what exactly are the parties proposing?
Labour takes a hands-on approach, promising thousands of extra childcare places funded through general taxation to encourage more parents into work. Ministers boast that since 1997, they have created more than one million extra childcare places.
Blair is also promising more than 1,000 “children’s centres”, so that there would be one in every community by 2010. These are drop-in centres where young (probably single) mums and dads can get training and skills while their kids are getting a pre-school education.
The Government is also promising “wrap-around” childcare, with schools opening from “dawn until dusk”, so that parents can drop kids off early and pick them up late. This is to prevent the age-old problem of “latchkey” kids hanging around on street corners.
In addition, the chancellor has floated the idea of extending maternity leave to 12 months’ paid leave “as a goal for the next term”.
The Tories were first to promise a boost in parental leave by allowing fathers for the first time to share their partner’s leave from work after the birth of the baby. The opposition has also suggested a minimum weekly payment of £150 for the full 12 months of the child’s first year – six months’ more paid leave than at present, and almost £50 more a week.
Howard also plans to allow parents to use their childcare tax credit to pay “informal carers” such as grandparents and friends – the most popular choice for many families – rather than only being able to spend it on a registered childminder or nursery place as at present.
But, whatever the parties are proposing, these policies are likely to mainly help poorer employees. Childcare is still extremely expensive, with nursery fees averaging £7,000 a year, and salaries for nannies ranging from £12,000 to £20,000 a year.
Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI, said that the availability of more childcare is to be welcomed, provided that companies, particularly smaller firms, do not incur more red tape or administrative costs.
“I think employers would be pleased if their employees had more choice of better childcare, as long as that is quality and useful childcare, and not mind-numbingly boring for the children,” she told Personnel Today.
Anderson believes the drive towards more childcare is “inexorable”. But, on behalf of the CBI’s members, she does foresee problems over greater rights to maternity and paternity leave and pay.
Anderson said: “The problem for employers is still the uncertainty. Someone can go off on parental leave for up to a year, and that means keeping that job open for that time. You may be employing a temp in the meantime, but when the parent returns to work they may then decide after a few months that they want to give in their notice.
“It is the unpredictability,” she said. “What employers would appreciate as a quid pro quo is more evidence of the intention of the parent after they return to work.”
She adds that although most of maternity and paternity pay is reimbursed by the state, not all of it is refunded, and that this inevitably incurs a cost to companies, particularly small firms.
Although Brown has promised to address CBI concerns, the evidence suggests mixed feelings from employers about this new general election battle over childcare and parents’ rights. But, judging by business experience following the introduction of the ‘right to request’ more flexible working hours until a child is six years old, the signs are not all bad for companies. The CBI’s own survey suggests that about eight in 10 employers say the new rules – introduced in April last year – are working well.
Time will tell if the same will apply to the new proposals that will play a crucial role in the May election.