The Tories appear to be challenging Labour dominance in the area of family-friendly policies. Shadow families minister Maria Miller talks to Sian Harrington.
Maria Miller is emphatic. "Helping employees balance family and working life is part of every employers' job," she says.
As shadow families minister, Miller knows what she is talking about. Before entering Parliament, inheriting Basingstoke from retiring MP Andrew Hunter, Miller worked in business for 20 years. In a career primarily spanning advertising and public relations, she includes marketing manager at Texaco, director at Grey Advertising and director of Rowland Saatchi on her CV before becoming one of a new breed of working mothers on the Conservative benches in May 2005. This was just four years after earning her spurs contesting Wolverhampton North East on her original home ground.
Given this, it is not surprising she is passionate about encouraging more mothers back to work, and her target is not just the world of business.
"It is vital that, if we are going to have a Parliament that represents this country, we have the participation of more women and people from different backgrounds - and not career politicians. One reason I wanted to become an MP was because I worked in business, had three children and also had my two parents who lived as part of our family. I don't think we have enough people dealing with the day-to-day realities of situations like this in Parliament."
Family life has long been a battleground between Labour and Tories but recently both parties have become more vocal about the revolution in family life over the past couple of decades, including the impact on society of family breakdown, dislocation and more children with two working parents. From Labour's moves to break the 'mother-domination' of family policy in public services to David Cameron's 'broken society' in which he would put the family at the centre of Tory thinking in order to "solve our social problems for the long term", the family is firmly at the top of the agenda.
But changing economic climes and an apparent U-turn in the definition of family (to include single parents, divorced parents and widows) has seen the Tories push ahead of the game in the past year as they seek to challenge Labour's traditional dominance in this area. "David Cameron has made it absolutely clear we want Britain to be the most family-friendly country in the world," says Miller. "I think employers want a government that is consistent with their messages and not inconsistent."
This inconsistency refers to business secretary's Peter Mandelson's interference in some of the Government's family schemes. First there were his statements on flexible working last October when it looked like he was going to put the brakes on the extension of the right to request flexible working to parents with children under 16. This new legislation did go ahead, on April 6 this year, but Miller believes his comments had a negative impact on the debate.
"I do think it was unhelpful of the Government to blow hot and cold on the issue of flexible working and particularly the interventions of Lord Mandelson in stating that flex working was an on-cost for business," she says. "I think there's enough evidence now to say that good employers, whether large or small, can make flexible working an asset to their business, not a cost."
More recently Mandelson has put on hold proposals for mothers and fathers to share maternity and paternity leave. These would have enabled a woman to be paid 90% of salary for the first 26 weeks of maternity leave as opposed to current legislation limiting this to the first six weeks. Beyond this, leave was to be awarded in three blocks of four-month periods, one for the mother, one for the father and one for either parent.
While Mandelson's postponement is seen by many in business as sensible given the economic circumstances, Miller believes it is yet another symptom of the Government's capricious nature. Of course, it's easy to criticise the party in power but the Conservatives seem determined to shake off their 'women should be at home' attitude.
"We feel it is absolutely right that families who are under increasing pressure have ways of trying to balance life and work commitments," Miller stresses, adding: "The best way forward for employers is to get the best out of their employees by recognising and responding to this. So our proposals on flexible working have always been ahead of the Government. We advocate the right to request flexible working for parents of children up to the age of 18."
Other policies to emerge include a system of parental leave enabling parents to choose how to share 52 weeks of leave after the birth of their child - the first 14 weeks applying only to the mother, but thereafter parents could then decide to share the time, potentially taking some of it simultaneously.
If this sounds a bit too 'touchy feely' for the party of business, then it may indeed be so. Some leading Conservatives have shown their real form by calling for cuts in business regulation that could affect employment rights. Indeed as shadow work and pensions spokesman Chris Grayling, now shadow home secretary, was quoted saying maternity legislation has gone far enough.
Miller too echoes more traditional Tory policy when the talk moves to childcare funding; currently too complex, bureaucratic and costly in her view. "It is surprising that after 12 years and £1.8 billion a year being spent on subsidised childcare, one of many families' biggest headaches is still just how to get affordable and flexible childcare that fits around their working lives. Only 10% of the UK population work a 9-5 day and having childcare that fits into your working patterns has to be a priority for any family."
She is particularly critical of the childcare element of Working Tax credits. "My biggest concern is that we have what should be the answer to affordability - a means-tested programme - but at the moment only one in four and maybe only one in 10 families that are eligible are applying for and using it. This shows what should be the main plank of an affordability programme has not succeeded and is not working."
A Conservative government, she says, would like to see administration of the tax credit system simplified.
The other model that interests Miller is a salary/National Insurance offset scheme. "This is something we will discuss, and have already discussed, with our Treasury team. However, there is already a programme in place to help affordability and our first port of call has to be looking at how that works."
Funding is one big issue, provision the other - and when it comes to this Miller again evokes the traditional Tory approach of flexibility and choice.
"What is important is we encourage flexibility in childcare and one of the things I've been most concerned about is the reduction in choice people have. Government policy is clearly focused on trying to increase the number of centre-based daycare places at the expense of more flexible childcare such as child-minders. I would want to see the current decline in child minders reversed to make sure families have choices that best fit around their working pattern. For many women part-time working is their way back into work after they have had children so flexible options are really important."
One particular concern is enabling parents of disabled children to return to work. These parents are often most at risk of poverty as a result of the difficulties of getting childcare in which they are confident. Here Miller has done some work with the National Childminding Association to look at training provided for childminders to help parents in this situation access work.
But families are not just about children and Miller is keen to see eldercare high on the agenda, particularly as she is what she describes as "a fully paid up member of the sandwich generation, living and breathing this every day".
"Many of us who are looking at these sorts of policy areas are acutely aware of the double stress that families are under when dealing with eldercare as well as childcare issues. This is something that shadow secretary for work and pensions Theresa May has been looking at and you can be assured that the need to look at working patterns as well as the cost of care are within our mix when having discussions in these areas."
The long parliamentary hours are hardly conducive to work-life balance for someone with three young children and elderly parents. No wonder Miller is a vocal supporter of reforming the working hours but she concedes reforming Parliament is not easy, and neither is attracting a more diverse population to become politicians.
"We do need to do more to make it the sort of job that people feel they can come forward and participate in," she says. "For me one of the main challenges is that we have more than 600 individuals who all come from different parts of the country and who all have different needs."
Having said that, she does not agree with former minister for Europe Caroline Flint's remarks that female MPs are seen as "window dressing". "I don't think any MP could ever characterise themselves as window dressing. You can't become an MP unless you have a clear vision of what you want to do. This isn't a job you fall into, it is one you have to plan for and work hard for."
Nevertheless, she feels Parliament needs to work harder to attract women, who still make up just a fifth of MPs. "I was the 277th ever female MP and we still haven't reached 300. Every one of us works hard to make sure that not just women's views are represented but that we have a strong voice in the way the country is going forward.
"We need to make sure that the setbacks that have been experienced in recent weeks in terms of the number of leading women in this Government who felt it inappropriate to stay on under Brown's premiership does not deter women from coming in."
However, she is adamant that positive discrimination is not the way forward, belying her own description of herself as "wedded to self-help".
"David Cameron has made it absolutely clear he wants to see a significant proportion of women in a Tory government. But, as any employer would say, women have to be there on merit."
Q&A WITH MARIA MILLER
Q: Should employers continue to provide childcare vouchers during additional maternity leave? The recent amendments stating non-cash benefits must be maintained is causing concern for our readers who provide vouchers via salary sacrifice.
A: The salary-sacrifice scheme is based on such a strong premise that I have written to the Inland Revenue to ask what can be done to resolve this anomaly.
Q: Do you think this will make employers think twice about employing women of childbearing age? Or will they cease providing childcare vouchers?
A: The uptake of the voucher scheme is still relatively low. I think having to offer vouchers during periods of maternity when people are not being paid is probably one element that is hampering expansion. I will be looking at whether there are ways of trying to deal with that. The other obvious problem with the salary offset scheme is for people on minimum wage.
Q: How are the Tories going to encourage women with children back to work?
A: One thing you can't have is one single solution to childcare needs. Childcare needs differ depending on the age of children, number of children and the fact that the older children get the more difficult it becomes to juggle things like after-school care and holiday care. I think the provision of work-based nurseries will only ever help a small proportion of workforce except for in very large organisations with critical mass. For the most part parents want to be able to find the right childcare rather than relying on one employer to provide a solution.
Q What role can employers play in helping employees with eldercare needs?
A Most employers who run successful businesses want to have motivated employees so will already be doing what they can to accommodate the needs of their employees. The challenge for Government is to make sure it is doing all it can to support employers in this area rather than creating yet more bureaucracy.
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