Working grandparents, shared parental leave and care
Yesterday, the Chancellor announced that the government will extend shared parental leave (SPL) and pay to working grandparents from 2018 – another policy stolen from Labour’s election manifesto. It is easy to envisage some of the benefits this increased flexibility will bring and political parties are right to recognise how heavily reliant many working families are on grandparents. Polling for the TUC found that seven million grandparents are providing regular childcare, usually to enable parents to work, and 63 per cent of those grandparents are trying to hold down a job themselves. Yet working grandparents have no rights to leave to help them balance paid work and care. The Conservatives also pointed out that the new policy was likely to benefit single mothers, a group who were often overlooked in all the discussion about the increased choice SPL brought for couples. From 2018, a single mother will be able return to work early and transfer some of her maternity entitlement to a grandparent who could take time off work to care for the baby.
So the extension of SPL is likely to bring benefits for older workers and for families who are sharing childcare across the generations. But there are a few points to bear in mind to set this policy in context. First, SPL is only available for the first year of a child’s life so it will not help the millions of working grandparents who are regularly helping out with childcare for toddlers and school children. Neither does it give any help to working families who are struggling in that period between the end of the first year’s leave and the start of free childcare provision at two or three years old – a time when many families turn to grandparents for support.
Second, one of the main aims of SPL was to encourage fathers to play a greater role in childcare and to establish more equal parenting roles from the earliest stages. It will be interesting to see to what extent this new flexibility results in one generation of women transferring leave to an older generation of women instead of men taking on more responsibility for care. Many of the working grandmothers who might take SPL to help out with childcare will be relatively low paid (the gender pay gap is widest for women in their 50s). They will be struggling to build up a decent pension pot before they retire, having already taken time off work and worked part time while they raised their own children. The statutory pay rate for someone taking SPL is just £139.58 a week. This is half the national minimum wage for someone working a 40-hour week. Its real value has been eroded since 2011 and it would be worth nearly £10 a week more today if it had continued to increase in line with RPI. This low statutory pay is one of the main reasons why fathers say they cannot afford to take time off. The Conservatives should be looking to steal another policy from the Labour manifesto that would help address this and deliver the objective of more equal parenting: a promise to increase statutory pay to £260 a week and to give fathers 4 weeks’ leave on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. Increasing statutory pay would also minimise the financial hit for the older women who do take SPL.
Third, the restrictive eligibility criteria for SPL should not be forgotten. The TUC estimates that 2 in 5 working fathers have gained no new rights to time off with the introduction of SPL. This is because the mother is not in paid work or because the father lacks the necessary length of service or employment status to qualify. With high and rising levels of self-employment among older workers (especially among older women) many families who may think this policy offers something for them might find that the grandparents don’t qualify for SPL because they are not employees. And some of the working grandparents who are most in need of leave – those who step in, usually in very difficult circumstances, to raise their grandchildren when parents no longer can – may gain nothing from this extension of SPL. If the mother is not in paid work, maybe because she has been suffering from depression or has a drink or drug problem, there will be no maternity entitlement that can be transferred to the working grandparent. Maybe some of these issues can be addressed through the consultation that the government promises us early next year.
What this policy move does recognise is that with more older people, especially older women, remaining in paid work for longer there needs to be much greater accommodation of caring responsibilities by employers. Older workers are not just caring for grandchildren, many are providing care on a daily or weekly basis for partners, elderly relatives and others too. What would be of greater benefit is a standalone entitlement to paid carers’ leave.