A shake-up for childcare arrangements and statutory maternity pay could play a major role in the next general election, with the Labour and Conservative parties both unveiling new plans for working parents.
Opposition leader Michael Howard has revealed new proposals to help working parents deal with rising costs of childcare by reforming the working tax credit system.
He also pledged to investigate the feasibility of increasing statutory maternity pay during the first six months after a child is born.
The childcare element of the tax credits would be paid directly to parents to spend as they choose, although Howard promised this wouldn’t create further red tape.
“We can ensure that regulation is a light touch and we can help support informal care more effectively,” he said.
Tony Blair’s strategy promises affordable childcare for all children between three and 14 years of age. In a speech to the Daycare Trust charity, he explained that a more flexible and integrated approach towards childcare was required.
He said that flexible working rights for new parents would not be altered before 2006, but that in the long-term, he envisaged more paid leave for mothers and fathers, and a greater freedom in the way they choose to take it.
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development assistant director Duncan Brown welcomed the aims of both policies, but said neither would dispel the perception among workers that levels of maternity and paternity pay were too low.
“At a time when labour shortages characterise the market, giving a good deal to working parents becomes a business necessity, not an optional extra,” he said.
“However, our most recent research shows that fathers feel they simply cannot afford to take up their statutory right to paid leave at the current rate.”
Meanwhile, the Equal Opportunities Commission has called for employers to have the right to ask women for possible return-to-work dates at a much earlier stage of their maternity leave, to make the process more manageable for businesses.