The best start for children, the best deal for families

When I took on the job of Families spokesperson in Nick Clegg’s Shadow Cabinet, I was very clear about the approach I would take. In Britain today, there is no identikit family that represents the best way to live – there are many types of families – but the key thing that often links these families are children.

Parents want to give their children the very best of start in life. But balancing the demands of a job with caring for young children is a real struggle. Getting time off work is difficult and finding quality, affordable childcare can be impossible.

Labour’s childcare system is a mess. The patchwork of government provision has left many parents missing out on what they are entitled to or unable to hold down even a part time job.

Now we are in a recession and families are harder pressed than ever before. As unemployment soars and parents lose their jobs, childcare becomes even less affordable, but without it parents will struggle to return to work or training.

That is why today Nick Clegg is unveiling our proposals which will, for the first time, provide seamless childcare support for families from the day a child is born to their first day of school.

The proposals include:

  • 19 months of paid Parental Leave, replacing the current maternity and paternity leave arrangements. To get the maximum entitlement, parents will have to share the leave as no parent will be able to take more than 12 months.
  • Free and flexible childcare for children aged 18 months-5 years for 20 hours per week.

It is disgraceful that in today’s Britain by the age of three, children living in poverty are often already falling behind in terms of being ready to start school. Helping all children get the best start in life is a core part of what the Liberal Democrats are about.

We want all young children to be able to attend quality pre-school education to aid their development and prepare them for formal schooling. We believe that quality preschool education can also function as quality part-time childcare which is much sought after by many parents who wish to work.

The introduction of shared parental leave would give both parents a real opportunity to take meaningful time away from work to bond with and care for a new child. Above all, it would also properly recognise the role that so many fathers want to play in raising and bonding with their children.

These proposals have a price tag, up to £3bn. As a party we are in the process of identifying £20bn of Government spending which we believe should be directed to other priorities. I believe this should be one such priority.

Since being Prime Minister Gordon Brown has spent over £3bn on the war in Iraq and has spent many billions more on bailing out banks. In terms of the whole of Government spending £3bn is a relatively small amount to direct to supporting families and children.

The Federal Policy Committee has adopted these proposals for debate at Conference in Spring (see paper with full details on the party website here). I hope you will give them your support.

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27 Comments

  • Bibliophylax 30th Nov '08 - 2:37pm

    Looks good, reading the PDF now.

  • Is the parental leave to be paid, or is it at some token rate? If it is the former, who is going to pay for it? How much will it cost? Are firms likely to be able to afford it, given the pressure many firms find themselves under?

    If it is the latter, then it isn’t much use.

    I am sure the answers are in the paper, but if someone who has read the paper would like to tell us, that would be great.

  • Sounds great, but, how can 19 months parental leave plus about 4000 hours of childcare, for all under-fives, possibly cost as little as £3 billion?

    On my arithmetic, £3 billion divided between Britain’s 60 million people comes to just fifty quid per person….!

  • Thanks Jennie. I am all in favour of transferability, and am therefore disappointed (as you may be) that only 5 of the 19 are transferable, since both parents have to take 7 months each, even if they would rather have a 6-13 split, or, dare I say it, a 18.5-0.5 split?

    But if that means that all employers who currently offer 6 months full pay maternity leave (as mine does) now have to offer the same in paternity leave then it will be very expensive for the firm. There is then a risk either that the firm uses the same pot of money but now offers 3 months paid maternity and 3 months paid paternity leave (which I doubt would be more popular, or better for kids), or that the extra burden on the firm, especially at this time, leads it to go bust. Unemployment and poverty are not good for kids either.

    I think that there are about 1m kids aged 18mo-3 who would get state funding for 20 hours nursery care for the first time. Assuming a 39 week year, that is 780m hours of childcare, which comes to about £3bn. So those numbers add up, but it does imply that all of the burden on extra parental leave falls on employers, or is unpaid. Both seem to me to have real disadvantages.

    Finally, I am also a bit worried that we seem better at spending the £20bn that we say we are going to save than at spending it!

  • david brough 1st Dec '08 - 7:44am

    Having children is a lifestyle choice which should not be subsidised by employers or the state. If you can’t provide for them, don’t have them.

    The world shouldn’t stop turning for your sake because you’ve had unprotected sex.

  • Jennie: I know that reality from the other side – my family were poor when I was a kid. That it is still the reality for so many is dreadful. I am not sure that this measure would remove discrimination against people of childbearing age, however. After all, the leave can still be split 12:7, and probably will be in the main. In addition, if the parent who takes a day off work when the kid is ill is primarily the mother, if the parent who goes home on the dot every day to pick the kid up from nursery/school/childminder etc is primarily the mother, then employers are going to be less keen to hire women of childbearing age. If both parents get lots more rights, then employers may prefer people not of childbearing age. Until the state puts its money where its mouth is, and subsidises the employment of women of childbearing age, I don’t see any reason for employers’ behaviour to change.

    David Brough should realise that the reason for subsidising children is children, not parents.

  • david brough 1st Dec '08 - 10:26am

    That’s the reason we have so many children growing up with unfit parents, without any aspiration, having the welfare state as a surrogate parent.

    What future do they have, realistically?

    You think you’re being nice and caring but you’re causing damage.

  • David Brough – “Having children is a lifestyle choice which should not be subsidised by employers or the state.”

    So – taking it to the logical extreme, if no-one could afford to have children, there would be no more children.

    So who, exactly, will be providing the medical care, and working to create the value in the companies that pay pensions, to all the old people populating the country at that time?

    Believe me – the childless get a very good deal from the current state of affairs. If you won’t give me a tax break now, then my children won’t be changing your incontinence pads and working to pay your pension in the future.

  • david brough 1st Dec '08 - 11:29am

    We have endless welfare dependents who refuse to work. Admittedly they aren’t good for much, but if they had some form of job we wouldn’t be relying on immigration to fill unskilled positions.

  • David Allen 1st Dec '08 - 1:49pm

    David Brough: Yes, that’s what the BNP say, and it’s partly true, but it’s also totally meaningless. It’s equally true that we wouldn’t have an energy crisis if we could burn water. And it’s an equally unhelpful remark to make!

  • Liberal Neil: “All the parental leave would be funded in a similar way to current maternity leave”. Isn’t that the problem? The state only pays for the first 6 weeks (and about £120 for the next chunk), so our policy means that employers currently offering women 6 months off on full pay either have to cut that and offer 3 months to men and three months to women (to be equal, and we would prevent them swapping that back to 6 months for the mother even if they think that is best for their family because we are not that liberal), or offer both 6 months each, but at a cost to the firm. Are we sure that that is actually progress?

    I also doubt the reception to this policy will be as strong when we make it clear that people will have the right to 6 weeks off paid, and then a long period at £120 a week. Would you have taken that?

  • Tim: In an ideal world we would clearly love to reimbourse employers offering such generous schemes – but clearly this would be a huge financial commitment which would, in the main benefit, higher earners who would be reimboursed at a higher rate. Research shows that women on low incomes take maternity leave to the extent to which it is paid (currently 9 months but the government is committed to increasing this to 12 months by 2010) and that higher earning women take the leave until they lose their job protection – some people simply have to live on £117.18 per week.

  • Jennie: I strongly support all leave being transferable. I would go further, and say that all of the leave should be transferable, rather than the state saying that 7 months cannot be transfers. The policy group (and Jo C-S) are not so liberal, and think that the state should not allow couples to decide how to run their lives. But the party has always been a broad church, and so be it.

    Jo is right that some employers will want to attract people by offering good terms and conditions – a big minority of firms offer paid maternity leave (almost all the public sector and most big plcs) for exactly that reason. But allowing firms to do so if they think it is a good recruitment tool is very different to saying that all firms have to do it. After all, some firms offer salaries of £50k+, but it would not make sense to say that all firms should have to, on the grounds that then they will attract better staff. If we require maternity and paternity leave to be equal, then we raise the costs to employers. It might be worth doing that, but to deny that it is raising the costs is wishful thinking.

  • Employers have a very real problem now with women taking their maternity entitlement and then not returning to the company they work for. Surely this more flexible system should ease that a little for them? One of the main reasons that women do not return is because they are “fearful” about leaving their child with a “stranger”. If the father of the child could take over the childcare for a while, the mother will be reassured and enjoy her return to work more. It’s got to be better for recruitment and retention of employees if you can be sure they are at least coming back.

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