Leo Plumb – 17th November 2022
Leo writes about why we need bold paternity packages and strengthened maternity rights for mums, drawing on the work being done by Pregnant then Screwed Campaign.
My partner and I have a son. He’s just started back at nursery in the ‘big room’ for 3-5 year olds. He’s loving it and in all honesty the childcare is a life-sustaining support for my partner and I. We don’t have family in Scotland though they journey here frequently and are a big part of our lives. Nevertheless we are reliant on friends, many of whom are just as worn out as we are.
This last summer was hectic. Before our son was entitled to nursery during the holidays, my girlfriend Claire and I juggled shifts and handovers calling up those worn out pals at short notice for help. Claire’s alarm goes at 4:45am some days so she can tiptoe out of the house to her job at a bakery. You might well have seen me at a Common Weal street stall with twigs in my hair and with my t-shirt on inside out.
Parenthood can be a blast, I always want to spend more time with my family. My son keeps me moving, I get to share in his first joys of skimming stones or carving a pumpkin. What nursery can provide for children in this regard is magic. It gives the extra chance to develop skills, learn to socialise, cooperate, make decisions and play. As David Graeber the anthropologist suggested play may well be ‘the basic principle embedded in all levels of physical reality’. I’m getting a tad philosophical here but play should be a tool for freedom outside the constraints of the market.
So this week I’d love to write about how good nursery could be if it was actually available or affordable to all. (Within the next few days childcare in the UK look tipped to become the most expensive of all ‘developed countries’.)
Instead however, I want to show you a recent campaign Pregnant Then Screwed that is helping to highlight structural inequalities impacting families that begin even before a child is born. It has become increasingly clear that to reach a discussion on valuing family time within a healthy society, we need to be able to discuss living standards and employment rights as well.
Over the hectic summer I described above, the people who most often came to our rescue were mums (not all the time but a lot of time it was mums and grans), leading as they do the operation to look after one another’s families. Women are often left to repair the gaps created by a failing welfare state and childcare system. And of course the gaps left by men too. It’s not surprising then that mums are also at the forefront of the movements to improve equality, childcare and welfare reform.
I saw a lot of these mums out in Glasgow’s George Square on October 29th at a political march organised by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS). The campaign name reflects the reality that women often face a loss of working rights when they become pregnant.
The crowd who gathered at the demonstration in Glasgow were families of all shapes and sizes. As they were across the 11 other cities where these protests took place. I bumped into plenty of friends at the protest. It felt positive. It was perhaps the most diverse protest in Glasgow I’ve attended. Most of the crowd were fairly distracted because infants aren’t into staying still at an event like that. But it gave a chance for people to share stories rather than listen to speeches.
And what came across from the stories which parents shared was the complete mess everyone was in. I mean a real tangle of financial disorder. Here’s some examples:
- Couples who qualify for paternity pay, where one does and the other doesn’t.
- Benefits which are reliant on each other, and in some cases cancel each other out.
- Those who are on a nursery waiting list but have absolutely no idea when it will start and therefore have to forfeit their next apprenticeship or new job.
- Single parents with such a shortfall in income they can’t pay rent
- Stay at home parents being encouraged to take up paid employment by the job centre against their will.
- Those who have completely lost confidence in finding work again.
- Parents wondering: ‘if working only just covers the cost of childcare is it even worth it?’
Child Poverty Action group, a UK wide charity, published a report at the start of November outlining the biggest deterioration in families’ living standards in the ten years since their studies began. The report explains that measures to account for this are intricate (because a cost of a child varies a lot over their lifetimes). Suffice to say that family incomes have failed to keep up with rising costs and analysis shows that it is not simply a result of inflation. In many cases it is on the back of stubbornly cruel benefits caps and two child limits. The complex saga of negotiating employment, paternity and benefits comes at a cost.
It is often said that at least Scotland has a slightly improved outlook on this over England. This week for example marks a positive step as the Scottish Child Payment increased. This financial support is available to families in receipt of Universal Credit or Tax Credits. The increase means that families in Scotland can receive £25 for each child per week, where it was just £20 before that. It’s a hopeful sign that threats to families are being recognised and acted upon.
The first day in which families could apply saw the web portal crash, clearly a sign of soaring demand. Alongside a rent freeze the child payment offers some assistance. But we should be clear that Scotland simply has more targeted benefits on offer. These may indeed help with school uniforms or bus fares but on their own do not address the basic structures of inequality nor help families navigate the complicated welfare system.
Because of the complexity of parenthood, the Pregnant Then Screwed campaign has grown to encompass a broad set of demands. Aiming to ensure families with children wether stay-at-home or out-at-work, all face a more stable future. However at its core the campaign centres on Women’s employment and maternity rights. To my mind this is one of the most important policy areas to get right first, if we ever stand a chance of righting this incredibly unfair system as a whole.
As of this year, women make up 49% of the workforce in the UK. Despite this, employers continually let them and their families down. If you become pregnant or reach a stage of life where pregnancy is more likely, then you are increasingly at risk of being made redundant.
Reports by the UK Equality and Human RIght’s Commission show that one in nine mums reported being dismissed or treated so poorly they were forced to leave their jobs while pregnant. 1 in 5 (almost double) said they received harassment or negative comments when asking for flexible arrangements in work.
Simply because you become pregnant or it may be a stage of your future life, should never put you at the whim of terrible employers to take the control away from your life. As women begin imagining what their family future might be like -with all the hopes and doubts that entails- they should never face losing income. We should aim for a society where mums skills and talents are never put under question. I am a man and so I am much more likely to be doling out this treatment than experiencing this discrimination myself.
As I already mentioned, some people consider Scotland’s parental rights to be better than other places. I would argue that it is hard to make that case when the same destructive, pervasive gender inequalities and the gender pay gap still set the standard.
After all, if your first experience of parenthood is getting sacked or harassed how would you not begin to lose faith in what rights you supposedly have and what financial security you can expect.
This is before we get onto women being purposefully overlooked for promotion, being placed in unsafe working conditions or discouraged from attending pre-birth hospital appointments. People being discriminated against following a miscarriage is all too common too, though very rarely spoken about.
The PTS charity has collected vast testimony on these accounts, sometimes using it to name and shame employers. These reports and case studies also detail some of the legal victories which have achieved compensation: here’s a quote from Hannah who won a legal case against her employer when she was sacked for time off after an ectopic pregnancy:
“I hope this is not only a warning to employers but a big plus to any women who feel they have been wronged. If it feels wrong- it probably is”
My heart sank when I heard that less than 1% of mothers who lose a job unfairly will lodge a tribunal complaint against their employer. There is a lot more we could do to improve this picture and it would take both a social, trade union movement and a policy platform to push this all the way.
What we need is a movement that makes the case for the Government to invest in paternity rights, (I mean proper rights for mums and dads working or not). Also to secure hard and fast employment rights that can be enforced. And crucially to combine these policies.
Common Weal’s position is for generous paid leave for parents. And secondly for transitions to childcare not simply as a support, but as a means to enable social prosperity and a dynamic economy. Joeli Brearley the founder of PTS refers to the research conducted in Quebec Canada where, local government has poured money into parental leave programmes. It has been proven that for every $1(Canadian dollar) spent the state receives between $1.8 and $2.4 returned back to the economy.
If we had policy aimed at meeting those needs it must also be used to disempower employers from gender and maternal discrimination. It’s hard to imagine how we would achieve such a cultural shift without significant political change. But there has to be a way.
Common Weal’s supports a parental leave programme that would be long term and easy to apply for. Look out for more on this in our forthcoming publication. By way of a summary: A good target would be to guarantee a minimum of 60 weeks of parental leave, at-least 10 weeks paid at full time salary for each parent, then 20 Weeks at 80% of salary. Then a further 20 weeks for the remainder a rate of enhanced Universal Basic Income.
Other than the guaranteed 10 weeks already mentioned, this could be shared by parents dependent on what combination works for them. They managed to increase fathers taking paternity leave in Quebec from less than 20% of the population to 80%.
In my opinion I think parental leave should be guaranteed regardless of how long you’ve been employed or promised a contract. I was stung before with just 5 days compassionate leave given to me as I hadn’t acquired enough time with the company I was working for at the time my first child was born. It goes without saying that any system adopted should work while in and out of other benefits.
I think we should also push to end to the casualisation of work. We should aim for a four day working week instead. Zero-hour contracts are terrible and they are infiltrating many new sectors of work. Childcare is not improved with these conditions if you can’t plan when you’re working or your rates of income. While we are on the topic of women facing discriminatory redundancy, let’s be clear many of the zero-hours employers are amongst the worst for exploiting female workers.
We can and we must expand free childcare entitlement. We must give early years workers increased training and workplace protections. Common Weal have consistently written on how Scotland must aim for the highest quality childcare models to give families the best start in life (I’ve included several recent links below). I will admit there is so much more Id have liked to say about reforming the benefits system as of course not all parents need to or can be in work. Similarly on providing quality advice and guidance through a National Care Service community hubs. We will no doubt continue to cover this as a priority in publications due out very soon.
Ive tried here to make the case for how we can increase labour market possibilities for women, and give mums equal control of their aspirations. It goes without saying that the biggest challenge yet is to get dads like myself to take more of an equal share in contributing to household and happiness rather than career. Overall giving both parents more of a chance to be with their children should be the ultimate goal; to enjoy the playtime that is good for everyone.
Whoever you are, consider joining future actions with Pregnant then Screwed. Follow them here.
And if you have opinions about what Common Weal could do to improve prospects for parents and families get in touch with your ideas.