· 1 min read · Features

Employers agree childcare vouchers must be simplified

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If there was one HR lesson the prime minister learned last year, it was this: mess with working parents at your peril. When he threatened to scrap existing tax relief on employer-provided childcare, nine of his former cabinet ministers urged him to change his mind and a small army of opposition quickly mobilised, culminating in 92,000 people signing a petition to secure the future of childcare vouchers. But while the U-turn assured protection for some, research from Accor Services shows that, of the employers currently not offering this employee benefit, 80% are small businesses.

To find out why, HR magazine supported a conference last month, sponsored by the Childcare Voucher Providers Association. Speaking at the conference, national chairman of The Federation of Small Business John Wright said the reason members do not provide the benefit is down to red tape and ever-changing legislation. "Childcare vouchers have to be made simpler for small businesses," he asserted. "Maternity legislation is not flexible enough for small businesses - it can be a quagmire if there is no HR department or legal expert in their business."

The problem, said Simon Moore, managing director of Computershare Voucher Services, is that in every SME that fails to offer childcare vouchers, valuable members of staff will be forced to walk away from their jobs. "Without childcare vouchers, staff will leave (due to the high cost of childcare)," he said. "They will think it's better to opt out of work and go onto benefits."

Flexible working was suggested as one solution SMEs could adopt. Emma Stewart, co-chair of the Department of Work and Pensions' Family Friendly Working Taskforce, said flexible working is seen as being difficult to implement, but this is far from the reality: "Small businesses often believe the myths about the difficulties of these arrangements - that line managers need costly training to manage flexible working, for instance," she said. "But flexible working is really about ensuring support for these businesses, not just about what legislation the Government has in place."

Jacqui Roberts, operations manager at interactive gaming agency Ash Gaming, is a convert to childcare and flexible working. "The majority of our staff are male, so we extended our paternity leave benefits for them," she said. "Staff asked us for childcare vouchers, so we put them in place and we remind them of the perk when they have children. We know that talented employees would have been forced to leave had we not been able to allow them flexible working. I'm convinced these (family-friendly benefits) have boosted our profits."