Last week, the General Election campaign entered its final phase, with all three main political parties publishing their election manifestos. And we’ve been measuring them up against our own policy manifesto, Valuing families, valuing maternity.
First out of the blocks, on Monday, was Labour, with an 85-page document entitled Britain can be better. This sets out several policy pledges on issues highlighted in our manifesto.
There is welcome recognition that the employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 introduced by the Coalition in July 2013 have created “a significant barrier to workplace justice”. A Labour government would “abolish the employment tribunal fee system as part of wider reforms to make sure that affordability is not a barrier to workers having proper access to justice, employers get a quicker resolution, and the costs to the tax payer do not rise”. And, in its separate Manifesto for Work, issued two weeks earlier, Labour adds: “We will ask Acas to oversee a process led by the CBI and the TUC to agree reforms to the system”. However, this fails to spell out whether Labour would abolish fees outright, or introduce an alternative fees system. And it raises questions about how long the Acas-led reform process would take, and whether the current fees would remain in place in the meantime.
There is disappointingly no mention of the ‘childcare gap’ between the end of paid maternity leave (or shared parental leave) and the start of entitlement to free childcare. But the manifesto does pledge an expansion of “free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds, paid for with an increase in the bank levy” and “a legal guarantee for parents of primary school children to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm through their local primary school”. The manifesto adds that “this will be underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not-for-profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities”.
On midwifery and maternal mental health services, the manifesto commits Labour to “invest in 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, and 3,000 more midwives”. And, in a blogpost published a few days before the manifesto, Labour pledges “guaranteed personalised one-to-one care from a midwife” and explains that “this guarantee will be made possible by our commitment to recruit 3,000 more midwives by 2020 – through our £2.5bn Time to Care Fund, funded through a mansion tax on properties over £2m, tackling tax avoidance and a new levy on tobacco firms”. While some have noted that “the full benefits of personalised care will not be achieved by this election pledge”, it certainly amounts to a very significant investment in midwifery services, and as such is very welcome. The full manifesto also pledges that “mental health will be given the same priority as physical health, with a new right to access talking therapies”.
The manifesto re-iterates Labour’s previously announced pledge to “double the current two weeks of paternity leave to four weeks, and increase the amount of paternity pay from £140 to more than £260 a week”. And, noting that “many grandparents want to be more involved in caring for their grandchildren”, there is a commitment to “support them in doing so”. This was amplified two days later, with a separate Manifesto for Women stating that a Labour government would “consult on allowing grandparents … to share in parents’ unpaid parental leave, enabling them to take time off work without fear of losing their job”.
Last but by no means least, the manifesto states that a Labour government would “end the indefinite detention of people in the asylum and immigration system, ending detention for pregnant women and those who have been the victims of sexual abuse or trafficking”.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of the Conservatives, with an 84-page document entitled, Strong leadership; a clear economic plan; a brighter, more secure future. On childcare, this matches Labour’s core offer by pledging to “give families where all parents are working an entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for their three and four year-olds”, and commits a Conservative government to implementing the Coalition’s tax-free childcare scheme.
While there is no specific pledge to invest in midwifery or maternal mental health services, the manifesto states: “We have legislated to ensure that mental and physical health conditions are given equal priority. We will now go further, ensuring that there are therapists in every part of the country providing treatment for those who need it. We are increasing funding for mental health care … [and] we will ensure that women have access to mental health support during and after pregnancy, while strengthening the health visiting programme for new mothers”.
Come Wednesday, the Liberal Democrats joined the fray with a whopping, 160-page tome entitled, Stronger economy; fairer society; opportunity for everyone. On childcare, the manifesto sets out a bold (and very welcome) ambition to “extend free childcare to all two-year-olds” and “the children of all working parents from the end of paid parental leave (nine months) to two years”. However, it’s not entirely clear when this ambition might be achieved, or how it would be funded.
There are also welcome pledges to “expand Shared Parental Leave with a ‘use it or lose it’ month for fathers, and introduce a right to paid leave for carers”. But there’s no suggestion that this extra parental leave for fathers would be paid at more than the current £138.00 per week, equivalent to just 60 per cent of the minimum wage. On the plus side, the manifesto states: “While changes to parental leave should be introduced slowly to give business time to adjust, our ambition is to see Paternity and Shared Parental Leave become a ‘day one’ right”.
On employment tribunal (ET) fees, there’s a somewhat vague pledge to “improve the enforcement of employment rights, reviewing ET fees to ensure they are not a barrier”. However, earlier this month, the Coalition’s employment relations minister and now Liberal Democrat candidate Jo Swinson wrote that “there is a real concern that bonafide claims are being unheard due to workers being unable to afford fees, [so] we would review the level of tribunal fees to ensure that they do not prohibit people from making bona fide claims. A nominal fee could be appropriate to not unduly deter sound claims.”
Somewhat disappointingly, the three parties between them manage just one single mention of breastfeeding in their combined 330-pages of manifesto pledges, with the Liberal Democrats saying they would “review the support and advice available for parents on early child nutrition and breastfeeding”. And no manifesto mentions the particular childcare challenge faced by single parents and parents of disabled children.
There is also surprisingly little mention of flexible working, with the phrase again appearing only once, in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto (and even that is just a reference to the Coalition’s extension of the right to request flexible working, in 2014). None of the three parties pledges extra funding for the specialist information and advice services women need to help protect their rights, and only one (again, the Liberal Democrats) mentions welfare support for asylum seekers. And no party has taken up our call for maternity care to be exempted from the NHS charging regime.
On the plus side, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledge to exempt statutory maternity, paternity and parental pay (and, presumably, maternity allowance) from a continuing one per cent cap on the annual uprating of welfare benefits. We would much prefer to see that cap scrapped entirely, of course.
Overall, then, some welcome manifesto pledges from each of the three main parties, but a lot of campaigning work yet to be done to ensure that the next government values families and maternity.