The CBI’s “small thinking” is bad news for women returning to work
Today we heard from Vince Cable that a central plank to the government’s long awaited growth strategy is to scrap the planned extension of the right to request flexible working to parents of 17 year olds and to give small businesses a three-year exemption from the new additional paternity leave scheme which allows mothers and fathers to share the mother’s right to maternity leave and pay if they wish.
This is bad news for parents who need that flexibility, particularly at a time when the Government has been making cuts to many of the childcare services, benefits and tax credits that support working parents. The decision to scrap the extension of the right to request seems particularly petty, given that the proposal in question would only have served to correct an anomaly which affects a small number of parents. Parents of children aged 16 or under and carers of adults (aged 18 and over) are entitled to make a request so the proposal would have just given an extra year in which a request could be made.
As Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families says:
“Any parent who needs flexible working for a teenager of 17 is likely to be dealing with a real crisis. Any employer who refuses even to discuss flexible working in such circumstances is not a good one. Parents in such circumstances may have to choose between supporting their child and staying in employment. Fairness for all employees is more important than ever during a recession: employee commitment and performance is critical to every business.”
While unions, the CIPD and organisations like Working Families have all questioned the logic of Cable’s announcement, the CBI, IoD and FSB have all proclaimed that the proposals don’t go far enough.
The CBI has put out a paper called – appropriately – “Think Small First”. In this manifesto for “thinking small”, the CBI suggests that maternity and flexible working regulations should be relaxed for SMEs. Amongst other worrying proposals, the CBI suggests that women should have to specify when they will return from maternity leave before they go on maternity leave and they could only change their return date if their employer agrees.
So how will this work? As it currently stands, maternity leave is calculated on the assumption that a woman will take her full entitlement (52 weeks). The woman must give 8 weeks’ notice of her intention to return to work earlier than a year and 8 weeks’ notice of any change of her intended return date.
The reality is that most women who have a good relationship with their employer will speak to their line manager or HR department in advance of their maternity leave about whether or not they intend to take the full year.
But the other reality that is ignored by the CBI’s proposals is that it is very difficult for a woman to be absolutely certain about when she will be able to or will want to return to work until after she has given birth. A wide range of circumstances and factors come into play when making decisions about returning to work. Maternal health, the child’s health, availability of childcare, affordability of childcare, changes to household income, amongst other things may all affect a woman’s decision to return to work earlier or later than originally planned.
No one can predict whether a woman will suffer pregnancy or post-partum related illness such as post natal depression. At least one in ten mothers suffers from post natal depression and it can occur at any point within the year after childbirth.
Few new mothers have any idea how difficult it can be to organise affordable childcare before they go on maternity leave and are often shocked to find 12 month waiting lists for local nurseries. With Sure Start centres shutting and scaling back their services up and down the country, affordable childcare for working families is becoming increasingly scarce. With changes to tax credits, including a reduction in the childcare element, many families will not yet know how much help they will be able to get with childcare costs.
With more than 130,000 jobs lost from the public sector in the last year alone, it’s not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where a woman plans to take a year’s maternity leave but either her partner loses their job or she fears for her own job security and is forced to curtail her maternity leave and return to work early in order to support her family.
The CBI may well be right that “the enemy of progress in this [increasing participation of returning mothers in the labour market] is uncertainty” but the fact is that having children is fraught with uncertainty and forcing women to commit to a return date before they’ve even left to go on maternity leave will not remove uncertainty and it may even result in women leaving the labour market altogether if they are pressured to return earlier than they are ready or able to.
So much for growth.