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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Supporting Working Parents and Carers

Saturday, October 1, 2005

At the Labour Party conference Meg made the following speech at a fringe meeting organised by USDAW on Monday the 26th September. 

I’m delighted to be here today, particularly delighted because USDAW is the trade union I’m a member of - so I hope our General Secretary finds what I’ve got to say acceptable or I might be out on my ear!

However I should be safe - one area that has been a priority for the Government has been, and remains, children. The aspect that we are concentrating on today is the interaction between work and families, work and carers.

With the 2004 Pre-Budget Report, and the ‘Ten Year Childcare Strategy’, the Government set out its vision for families:

-         Ensuring that all children get the best start in life,

-         Responding to changing patterns of employment,

-         Giving parents and carers more choice.

I think anyone would agree that these are hard goals to achieve, but we have made a difference to many people’s lives already with the programmes currently in place. To name but one - the provision of nursery places for all 4 year olds whose parents want them, and now 3 years olds as well. Apart from the gain that the child gets with interaction with other kids, with trained staff looking after them - think of the break  for the parent, with time to do other things - or collapse in front of day time TV!

Earlier this year we opened up for consultation the paper ‘Work and families: choice and flexibility’ to get thoughts, ideas and possible problem areas as we plan for the next stage in the Governments work in this area. The responses we received are on the DTI website for those who want to follow this up. The consultation built on what Government has already introduced to support working families:

-         New paid paternity leave,

-         Extended maternity leave and increased maternity pay,

-         A new right to request flexible working for parents of children under 6 and disabled children under 18.

Among the items in the consultation was extending maternity and adoption pay from six to nine months from April 2007 and a step toward extending paid maternity leave to 12 months by the end of this Parliament. Part of the package is encouraging better and more regular communication between employee and employer - helping employers plan ahead and employees feel they remain part of the organisation. We know that the early months of a child’s life are very important and ensuring parents get that valuable time with their children will reap benefits for the welfare and development of children.

That’s why we are also looking at a new right for mothers to transfer a proportion of their maternity leave and pay to fathers. This would give more choice to families about how they wish to care for their child during the first year. New fathers, like new mothers, want to spend time with their children. There are however a number of implications with this we have to get right - for instance, the father would usually be working for a different employer, how can we ensure that such beneficial transfers for the family do not have unintended troublesome consequences for the father’s employer.

Good employers know that it makes sense to retain their female employees; we have some excellent examples of companies such as Ford who provide excellent benefits and keep their staff in consequence. But the challenges faced by small and medium size enterprises are different, and while many already recognise the benefits of flexible working the demands of running a small business can make it much more difficult to manage leave entitlements.

The consultation also asked for comments about extending the right to request flexible working to carers of sick and disabled relatives. The majority of responses gave broad support for the proposal. We are currently consulting further with business, trade unions and carers groups about precisely which types of carer would be eligible under this proposed extension to the flexible working law. 

Whatever we decide in this area has to be capable of standing the test of time - that it suits the needs of the carer, the person being cared for, employers, and that society as a whole can pay for it. At events like this it’s easy for us all to say ‘carers do a magnificent job’ - and it’s true. That ‘carers have to often been ignored, left to fend for themselves’ - and that’s happened. What would be a mistake is to start making false promises about what we, or anyone else, can do. That’s why Government are studying the responses to the consultation very carefully. We want to have a consensus as to the way forward if we can achieve it. 

An ageing population, smaller families and different family structures, mean many people are now likely to care for another adult at some point in their lives. The numbers involved are large - 4.4 million carers between the ages of 16 and 64. With around 68% of carers spending less than 20 hours a week caring, the interaction between the world of the carer and the world of paid work is strong.  

But the evidence shows that once carers give up work completely, they tend to remain out of work for several years. One reason they give for stopping work is the lack of flexible employment. In one survey, seven out of ten carers under 50, and eight out of ten of those aged 50 to 60, had given up work to care for someone. 

There are also other good reasons to help carers have a better quality of life, and the benefits of continuing to work. My experience as a manager in social care was that the most common reason for an elderly person going into a care home was that the carer felt that they could no longer continue. Not only is residential care costly but it is often not what either the carer or the elderly person really wants. 

In February 1999 ‘Caring about Carers - A National Strategy for Carers’ was published. This report identified the areas of support needed by carers, and the different departments of state which had to act to provide them. The Carers and Disabled Children Act followed this in 2000, which strengthened the rights of carers to an assessment of their needs as carers. It gave local councils duties to support carers by providing services directly to them, and providing direct payments for carer’s services. Again disabled children are usually best cared for in their own home, but the demands of caring for a severely disabled child are significant and without services to support them parents can become exhausted, with knock-on consequences for the whole family including other children.

The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act was implemented in April 2005, building on the 2000 Act. It placed further duties on councils to ensure all carers know that they are entitled to an assessment of their needs. That such an assessment should consider carers outside interests, which could be work, study or leisure. It also seeks to promote better joint working between councils and the health service to ensure support for carers is delivered in a coherent manner.

We have been able to help by providing a Carer’s Allowance. Currently over 400,000 people receive this. Government also provided an extra £450 million to local councils over the past six years, for this year, and next, it’s worth £185 million pa. In 2003-04 this enabled just under 64,000 carers to have a break from looking after someone, a chance to re-charge their batteries.

During the Big Conversation exercise, the Prime Minister held a number of events to hear from different people about the issues that concerned them. I went along to one that was tackling the issue of work / life balance. The group I was in included people who worked for a range of employers from BT to ASDA. One woman made the point that the terminology was wrong - work is part of life. It is life that has to be balanced - balanced between work, home responsibilities and hopefully leisure. It is important in helping to make our lives happy and fulfilled. In Government we have made progress in getting the balance right for working parents and carers, and remain committed to continuing to push the boundaries further forward.

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