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Bringing up baby

The cost of childcare in the UK is amongst the highest in the world. Many parents with two or more children say that financially it does not make sense to work. Government statistics suggest that on average a family with young children is spending just over a quarter of their income on childcare. The current state of affairs is undesirable for a number of reasons, not least that it often has the effect of removing much-needed good quality skills and knowledge from the workplace for years at a time.

In an effort to reduce the costs of childcare, the Government has just announced that the child –carer ratios can be relaxed, allowing carers to look after more children per adult. This will be subject to the qualifications of carers meeting higher educational standards.

The Children's Minister, Liz Truss, has looked to Europe for her inspiration. She says in England nursery staff may look after no more than three one-year-olds. In France they can be responsible for five - and there are no limits in Denmark, Germany or Sweden.

Raising the educational standard of child care may well be desirable. How achievable this will be is moot. Many young people – principally young women – enter this field because they have a vocation to do so, but are not academically well-qualified. Will this proposal have the effect of stemming the flow of carers if they have to have GSCE English and maths?

As you might expect there are concerns that a change in ratios could endanger quality and safety.

The Chief Executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, Purnima Tanuku said the "quality of childcare and early education must not be sacrificed…….. changes to the number of children individual nursery workers can look after should only be considered if backed by strong evidence from the UK.”

Rights to help families juggle childcare and work responsibilities were introduced ten years ago, when the right to request to work flexibly to look after a child up to the age of six came into force. Over the years, these rights have been extended and added to. Last November Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced further reforms to allow parents to share up to a year’s leave after the birth of a child.

The new rights will give greater flexibility to new parents in the child’s first year of life. Employed mothers will still be entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, but parents will be able to take leave in turns or together, providing it is not more than 52 weeks in total.

The Government believes that this will be good for employees (I grant you that) and employers (not entirely in agreement with that). A spokesperson said that “Extending the right to request flexible working will enable all employees to discuss flexible working with their employer, and move the discussion away from why the employee needs to work flexibly, and onto how flexible working will work for the business.”

It is clearly important to support working families, there’s no dispute about that. However, the way that the legislation has been implemented and interpreted by the courts to date has tended to make them priority employees, whose needs overtake those of colleagues (who may have equally good but non-child related needs to take time off) and businesses. I appreciate that there are a number of reasons for refusal, but in reality the ability to reply on these applies relatively rarely.

The truth is most businesses are very good about agreeing informally to allow employees to work flexibly. They don’t like having it imposed, especially when it is to the detriment of the effective running of the business. The shared parental leave proposal could create all sorts of planning problems unless it’s very well thought out at the framework stage. There is a potential for a level of disruption which is likely to be difficult and disproportionately costly to manage.

What’s needed is a degree of compromise and reasonableness in such transactions and that’s very difficult to build into legislation. Many employees will listen to reason and consider workable compromises, but an increasing number of our clients have employees who already bellow about their rights as parents and to hell with the rest of you. They will not negotiate or compromise and are (it seems) perfectly happy to walk over the necks of their colleagues in hob-nailed boots so long as they get their own way. It’s not pretty and it’s not good for business.

We must hope that when they debate the detail of the legislation, the Government will understand the challenging fact that employers (and employees without qualifying children or dependent adults) do need a degree of flexibility themselves or they cannot work successfully. It should not be a case of all employees are born equal, but some (by virtue of parenthood) are more equal than others. It does feel a bit like that sometimes.

Unfortunately, while I may hope, I have no expectation of this. The current Government has emulated the former Government in demonstrating little knowledge or understanding of life in SMEs, so no doubt employers will have to like or lump it.

If you’d like help dealing with flexible working requests, give us a call.

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