12 JUNE 2015

The number of female Cabinet ministers who are also mothers is now 57 per cent, up from 40 per cent in 2010. Does this signal that Parliament is inclined to make better provision for working mothers?

Childcare is a key area that needs change. There are more women in work than ever before yet, because they still take on the majority of childcare, they need support. Currently all three and four year olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of free early education or childcare for 38 weeks a year. The Coalition Government extended this to the 40 per cent most disadvantaged two year olds but in anticipation of election time all three main parties agreed that they needed to go further.

In our analysis of Conservative Manifesto promises, Fawcett noted the rising costs of childcare and low uptake of paternity leave. As things stand, 63 per cent of women carry the main responsibility for childcare. The Conservative Party in government brought forward their promise to double free childcare entitlement to 30 hours a week for 3 to 4 year olds with working parents, which of course Fawcett welcomes. Pilot schemes will be rolled out in some areas from September 2016.

However, as is often the case, there are more questions than answers. What will happen to single parents with dependent children, 91 per cent of whom are women? Particularly in the early years of a child’s life, how can single mothers be expected to work full time if they are providing most of the care for their children? And, while there is an upper limit on joint earnings of £150,000, we are still not clear how many hours parents will have to work in order to qualify.

Fawcett’s Where’s the Benefit?  report earlier this year showed that claimants for Job Seekers Allowance were being pressured to apply for evening work and shift jobs, or even threatened with a benefit cut if they did not meet an advisor at a set time, such as school pick-up time. Thirty hours of free childcare a week only covers six hours a day and 38 weeks provision leaves another 14 weeks without cover. This is potentially perilous for single parents and Fawcett will certainly be keeping a watch on how they fare.

Paternity leave is absent from the government programme but if we are to share childcare between the genders, it is vital to increase the low number of fathers who take additional paternity leave (1 in 172). This enables them to take up to 26 weeks extra from the two weeks already given in 2013. Shared parental leave was introduced in April this year, which will allow mothers to share some of their leave with their partners, but this does not go far enough to achieve legal and social equality.

There is much for this Government to think about, particularly the provision for children between the ages of one, when maternity leave runs out, and three, when free childcare provision starts. Let’s hope the new influx of MPs will bring renewed energy to the issue.