Cross-party commission calls for better and fairer access to parental leave

Elliot Chappell

A cross-party commission on early years provision has called for a major change of policy from government as part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda, including an immediate expansion of employment rights for new and expectant parents.

The early years commission, set up by the Centre for Social Justice and the Fabian Society and co-chaired by Labour MP Sharon Hodgson and Tory MP and former minister for children and families Edward Timpson, today published its report.

Following a review of current policy, written evidence from 64 organisations, oral evidence from 15 witnesses, independent polling, three roundtable discussions and talks with sector stakeholders, the body made several policy proposals.

The group proposed that the government ensure parents are able to take time off for antenatal appointments, and that maternity and paternity rights are expanded throughout the first years of a child’s life.

Citing research showing that around 8% of fathers and 10% of mothers do not currently have access to paid paternity and maternity leave because they have not been in work for long enough, the commission recommended that all employed parents have access to such leave from the first day in their job.

It concluded that the government should work with councils to develop dedicated, locally-led parent support services in every community to offer families relationship-based support from the conception of their child.

The commission also recommended:

  • Rolling out children’s centres and family hubs across the country;
  • Prioritising disadvantaged areas;
  • Supporting the professional development of early years practitioners; and
  • Increasing compulsory interactions between children and health visitors.

The group said gaps in early years provision would affect the ability of the government to ‘build back better’. Polling for the commission found that just 1% of adults in England feel children under the age of five have been prioritised the most during the Covid crisis.

“Every single child across the UK deserves the best start in life, which is why I have campaigned for over a decade on the importance of a child’s early years, from conception to 1,001 days and valuable early years provision,” Hodgson said.

The Labour MP and co-chair said the report provided “concrete policies” to improve provision, and urged ministers to “take these recommendations on board to make the UK the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in”.

A 2017 OECD study showed that 15-year-olds who had access to good early years education outperformed those who had not, with children from lower-income households benefiting the most.

Co-chair Timpson said Covid had been particularly tough for babies and toddlers. “By coming together across the political divide, we want to demonstrate what is possible if the nation acts as one in ensuring every child has a great start in life.”

Polling commissioned for the report also found that 43% of people would support an increase in spending if it were paid for by raising taxes or redirecting funds from other services, compared to 19% of adults in England who would oppose it.

Commenting on the publication of the report today, Kate Green criticised Conservative cuts to early years funding, and argued that the children’s recovery plan from her party would “ensure every child can bounce back from the pandemic”.

The Sutton Trust recently found that, since the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came to power in 2010, 1,000 Sure Start centres – more than 30% – have closed.

The Shadow Education Secretary also accused the Tories of “allowing the early years sector to collapse under the pressure of Covid”, highlighting that 2,500 providers have closed their doors since the start of this year.

“It’s time the Conservatives match Labour’s ambition for our children and prioritise this vital infrastructure as we emerge from the pandemic,” Green added.

The report today comes amid growing concerns over the early years sector, with the education regulator Ofsted reporting recently that there were 12,000 fewer providers across England in August 2020 than there were in March 2015.

Labour launched a programme of events to talk to families about education and childcare services in April, as data revealed that the Conservatives governments have cut spending on Sure Start centres and under fives by 40% since 2015.

The engagements form part of Labour’s ‘Bright Future’ taskforce, launched by the Shadow Education Secretary earlier this year to develop a national strategy for children’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Centre for Social Justice is a think-tank that studies the causes of social problems in Britain. The Fabian Society is affiliated to the Labour Party and publishes analysis and opinion conducts research and policy inquiries.

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