HR must change its attitude

Children’s minister Margaret Hodge tells Nic Paton why childcare must be seen as a core business responsibility

According to children’s minister Margaret Hodge, HR needs to change its attitude towards childcare provision and recognise that helping working parents get access to quality, affordable childcare is a business priority as well as a social need.

Returning from Cleveland where she had just opened another ‘Neighbourhood Nursery’ – one of more than 1,000 opened in the past two years – Hodge was adamant that HR needs to pull its socks up when it comes to the provision of childcare.

“HR needs to see this as a core issue, which it is not doing at the moment – that it is part of their core business. HR needs to stop seeing it as other people’s responsibility,” she says.

The UK has never been very good at helping out working parents compared with countries such as Sweden, for example. Even now, only around 2 per cent of the nation’s childcare costs are borne by the employer, estimates Hodge, with some 45 per cent paid by individual parents.

Finding reliable childcare to fit around a working life can lead to parents struggling to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage, or worse, one parent dropping out of the workplace altogether. This sort of situation is not good for parents and, crucially, does employers no favours either.

“Childcare has been thought of traditionally as the concern of families. Employer contributions are tiny. But we are trying to do more,” says Hodge. “The greatest growth in the labour market has been among women with children under five. But childcare costs are an inhibitor to the expansion of the labour market.”

Hodge believes HR has a key role to play in changing these perceptions about childcare, persuading employers that burdening parents with the responsibility for paying for it has a knock-on effect.

“We are struggling to persuade employers that it is part of their core business to ensure there is a package of benefits for employees, which includes childcare,” she explains. “Somehow we need to persuade them of their core business responsibility, and to get the HR capacity within the organisation to do this. It is an uphill struggle,” she adds.

“If you want to recruit and keep the best people, you need to look at this as part of the whole package of work-life balance. It is a benefit to your bottom line.

“Any HR director who wants to support the profitability of their business wants to be thinking about work-life balance, including childcare,” she stresses. “When we talk to employers who are taking it seriously, the feeling is that they are unlocking the key to better recruitment and retention.”

Hodge believes employers need to work harder to create partnerships with childcare providers. These could be anything from links with local nurseries or council childminder networks, to looking at how best to provide advice on affordable childcare, tax credits and so on.

“When an employer is planning a new development they should, for instance, be asking: ‘Can we put in a workplace nursery?’ They need to be recognising that investment in their workforce has a major impact on their bottom line,” she says.

The NHS, for instance, has been particularly proactive in creating partnerships with nurseries for staff at both acute and primary care trust level, she adds. Private sector employers such as Asda and HSBC, have also been very active in this area.

The proliferation of out-of-town shopping centres, many of which have nursery provision, is another area employers could look at more closely. “They may be the sort of places where small firms may be able to buy a few spaces,” she suggests.

Schools, too, could be used more. Many primary schools have breakfast and after-school ‘clubs’ which often stand idle during the holidays.

So it could be that better use could be made of these services, again through partnership models, she suggests. “We need to look at how we can use schools better to provide wrap-around care for working parents,” she says.

What the Government is doing

The Government has a two-strand approach to childcare: its National Childcare Strategy, unveiled in 1998, and its Sure Start programme.

The strategy is focused on improving the number of childcare places and free early education and developing out-of-school-hours childcare programmes. Alongside this has been the introduction of tax credits, notably, from April last year, the Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit.

The Sure Start programme is also focused on creating new childcare places, making childcare more affordable and setting up local and national information services for parents.

It has encouraged employment advice to be linked with childcare and established children’s centres offering families in disadvantaged areas education, childcare and health advice.

Two other initiatives include Neighbourhood Nurseries, which aims to create 45,000 new childcare places in disadvantaged areas of England, and the Early Excellence Centres programme, set up in 1997 to develop models of good practice in integrating services for young children and families.

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