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2nd June 2016

Childcare is a notoriously sensitive area for employers, reflecting the significant changes to lifestyles and legislation in recent decades. A lead consultant at HR and employment law consultancy, ELAS, discusses the range of childcare options available to both employers and employees

Demographic changes, increased protection for employees – not to mention changing expectations from workers – all combine to generate unease for employers about the subject. This translates into a reluctance to speak about the practicalities of childcare affecting staff members for fear of breaking the rules or causing problems within the workplace. However, the reality is that the issue of childcare is governed by relatively straight-forward legislation, and incorporating strong policies around childcare can deliver great benefits for businesses, such as; boost staff retention, reduce absenteeism and improve performance, all of which can potentially decrease costs to the business.

Rising birth rate and its impact

As of December 2015, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that women in the UK are giving birth to an average 1.9 children each, significantly higher than other advanced European economies. The figure rose by 12 per cent between 2003 and 2013, ranking the UK higher than all other European economies, except France and Ireland. As the majority of these children are in working households, employers in the UK, more than ever, need to be up to speed on the issues surrounding childcare.

If discussed at the interview stage, there are considerable risks for businesses if mistakes are made with how the subject is discussed and the kinds of questions that are asked. And, with current employees, it is very likely that at some point a staff member will approach management or HR and say, “I need to ask something – it’s about my kids…”

Clarity and Legislation

The uncertainty around childcare should therefore be countered by robust policies that will allow employees and employers alike to feel confident about their legal entitlements. This, in turn, should improve the ability of employees to make informed choices about their careers and, in return, achieve their goals in the workplace.

The first point around childcare begins with maternity/paternity and shared parental leave. Since 2015, shared parental leave legislation means that employees in the UK have a statutory right to share up to 12 months leave. This provides working parents with the ability to exchange leave between them to best suit the care of the child with work. For example, if a mother is the main earner in the household, she may cut short her leave to return to work whilst the father takes more leave to care for the child. Similarly, flexible working legislation allows workers the right to request flexible working (crucially, not the right be given it), which can prove to be suitable for some businesses and their employers.

Emergency leave legislation covers situations where a carer has let down the employee, or if the child gets sent home from school. In this instance, parents have the right to a reasonable amount of unpaid leave to arrange alternative childcare – or cover it themselves as a last resort – however, this should be used in emergency situations only.

There is also a range of options for financing childcare through statutory government schemes to finance all or part of certain childcare periods. For example, 15 hours free childcare a week is available for children over the age of three, while some childcare costs can be offset through child tax credit schemes. Perhaps more significantly for employers, there is the option for a childcare voucher scheme. Although not legally required to offer this benefit to employees, statistics from the PMI Health Group’s 2014 Employee Benefits Index suggests that its popularity among employees continues to rise year-on-year.

Conclusion

As we have seen, a whole host of legal requirements and frameworks exist on the issue of childcare. These are designed to give clarity to employers and employees, reflect the changing demands of both family and work life in the 21st century, and to make sure that businesses and workers receive the support they need to balance work and parenting duties


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