What the next government should do for
In the run-up to the last election, maternity pay and child care
hardly featured as electoral issues. This time the three main
parties are competing to woo new parents’ votes by offering more
maternity pay and help with child care. If the parties stick to
their promises, this should add up to better support for most
parents with young children or babies whoever wins in May.
But how do the manifesto commitments square with what the
experts believe should be priorities for early years policy?
Caroline Abrahams, head of public policy at NCH says, “All three
parties have now cottoned onto the importance of the early years.
They all accept that child care has to be part of a 21st century
state. The big issue now is implementation and ensuring high
To provide all children with a high quality preschool experience
that can make a difference to their life chances, levels of
training and pay need to be improved, especially in the private and
voluntary sectors. There is an arbitrary distinction between child
care and preschool educational provision which makes no sense in
terms of children’s needs. Abrahams adds, “It’s a gender debate.
These are nearly all women. We need to upgrade and upskill. A lot
has been done but there is a lot more to do.”
Disabled children are missing out on the free preschool
provision. Although the government is talking about doing something
about the problem, disability is still viewed as a minority issue
and so receives little attention in the run up to an election.
In contrast, maternity pay now is now an issue on which all the
parties are keen to grab the limelight. There is a consensus that
extending women’s entitlement to statutory maternity pay would make
a big difference to poorer as well as middle income families. Katie
Wood, information and policy officer at Maternity Alliance
explains: “Only a minority of women get enhanced maternity pay from
their employer. Most just get the £106 a week for six months.
A lot of women would like to take a longer break after their babies
are born but can’t afford to.”
Another indication of how far the political agenda has shifted
is that all three parties now say they want to improve family
support in the early years. Mary MacLeod, director of the National
Family and Parenting Institute, believes that promoting strong
family relationships should be a priority. “There still isn’t
sufficient infrastructure to underpin really good family and
parenting support. I hope that health visitor and midwifery
services can be developed to help people in the early years.”
MacLeod would also like to see more emphasis on basics like
child health and nutrition. “At the moment we’ve got a really good
non-stigmatising system for picking up problems in the first three
years but after that you’re pretty much on your own.”
What Labour has done
- Maternity entitlement
- Statutory maternity pay up from £55 a week for 14 weeks in
1997 to £106 for 26 weeks now.
- Right to take extended unpaid maternity leave for a further 26
- Introduction of 2 weeks paid paternity leave at same rate as
statutory maternity pay. Child care and family support
- Free part-time nursery places for three and four year
- 500 Sure Start programmes established targeting 400,000
under-fours in disadvantaged areas.
- Parents now have a right to take unpaid parental leave for up
to 13 weeks during first five years (introduced in 1999).
- Parents of young children can request flexible working .
What the three main parties say they will do if they win
- Plan to extend paid maternity leave to 9 months, and to 12
months by 2010. They also want to allow women to transfer some of
their paid maternity leave to their partners.
- Establish 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres by 2010 offering
information, health care, family support and 8 -6 pm child
- Extend the early education entitlement for three and four
year-olds to 20 hours a week, with greater flexibility as to when
the entitlement may be used.
- Require local authorities to secure sufficient child care for
- Improve the qualifications of the early years workforce and
spend £125m a year on improving quality and sustainability of
private and voluntary sector provision.
- Develop a new programme to work with parents supporting
children’s early learning and development.
- Extend maternity pay to 33 weeks (8 months) and to allow women
to choose between £102.80 a week for 33 weeks or 90 per cent
of earnings up to a maximum of £170 for 20 weeks.
- Women will be required to notify their employer when they
intend to return to work three months after the birth.
- Simplify the child care element of working family tax credit by
paying £50 a week to qualifying families for them to choose
how to spend – on nannies or informal child care if they
- Instigate locally run support schemes for new parents in the
early months offering practical information and guidance as well as
The Lib Dems
- Guarantee all working mothers £170 a week maternity pay
for 26 weeks, aiming for 9 months if resources allow.
- Match Labour’s commitment to rolling out children’s centres and
extending preschool entitlement to 20 hours a week.
- Create a Children’s Profession with Early Years teachers
qualified to the same level as teachers.
- Provide training and communication networks for nannies and
childminders in Early Years Centres as part of their aim of
encouraging greater use of childminders.
- Axe the new child trust funds and spend the money saved on
family support and education services.
- Limit the size of reception classes to 20.