Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cookie Cutters, Wagging Fingers and praise for Harriet Harman - all in a Nick Clegg speech

There appears to be some sort of unwritten rule at the BBC that they aren't allowed to say anything positive about Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the moment. The other week, when he made a major speech on civil liberties, the BBC hardly covered it at all, instead giving time to predicting electoral meltdown for us in Oldham East and Saddleworth. Well, that didn't happen. Yesterday, his major speech on allowing parents to share parental leave when they have kids was presented in terms of business being critical. I've never known business ever to support any extension of rights to their employees, so nothing really relevant there. What would have been wrong with presenting it as having great benefits for parents?

I always think reading people's speeches in full is much more illuminating than the snippets we see in the press, so I'm sure Nick won't mind me reproducing it in full here. In fact, it would be much nicer if the press people could add at least some Lib Dem bloggers to their distribution lists so that I didn't have to go looking for things like this.

The 3 things I liked best about his speech were:

  • the cookie cutter analogy - a cosy domestic equivalent of my recurring theme of Labour treating people like an amorphous blob which needs Government to tell them what to do.
  • "Parents have had enough of the wagging finger, they want a helping hand". Nice touch.
  • Nick paying warm tribute to Harriet Harman for her work on equalities. Grown up politics.

I liked the way he brought together all the things the Government is doing, inspired by Liberal Democrats, to help families, and its attitude that people were there to be trusted not harangued.

The speech can be found on the web here and you can read it for yourself below:

All governments say they want to help parents. And all, I believe, mean it.
But there are different ways of doing that. And some work, and some don’t.
What doesn’t work, no matter how well intentioned, is when governments try to fit parents and families around policy.
Packaging out prescriptive, uniform support and advice from the centre.
Cookie-cutter solutions which fail to recognise that families which look the same on paper can have wildly different needs.
What does work is policy designed around parents. Around changing work patterns. Around evolving roles. Around the economic crisis and the pressures it creates.
Supporting parents. Empowering them.
And if we, in Government, can get that right, we don’t just help individual families. We help our society as a whole.
As The Home Front report explains, good parenting is central to social mobility.
A child’s future isn’t determined only by their home life. But it can make all the difference.
So, if our shared social mission is to create a truly open Britain in which every child can get ahead – and it is – parents must be at the heart of that. 
That is what I want to talk about this morning.

First, I will say a bit more about the link between parenting and social mobility.

Then, I want to address how government should respond to that. How we should help parents make the right decisions for themselves, instead of forever telling them what to do.
And, finally, I want to spell out some of the specific steps the Coalition Government is taking to do that.
Looking, on the one hand, at they way we are refocusing our efforts, in these straitened times, to help parents who need it most.
And, also, what we are doing to help the majority of parents – giving them much more opportunity to balance work and home.
On that, I want to pay particular attention to flexible working and shared parental leave.
Early on this Government made clear that our primary social policy objective is to improve social mobility. In particular, intergenerational social mobility.
That’s a more complex concept of fairness than has been prevalent in policy making in recent years.
According to the narrower model used by the previous government, greater fairness is measured by snapshot comparisons of income alone.
Income at any one point in time is, of course, important.
But it doesn’t tell you everything about a person’s life chances, or the life chances of their children. About the ability people have to get ahead.
And you simply cannot overestimate the role that parents play in that.
As Demos’ report notes, the ability of children to get ahead increasingly depends not just on academic brilliance or good fortune, but on self-discipline; motivation; self-confidence. Qualities you begin to learn when you are very young.
And, as Frank Field has pointed out in his recent report: in the early years, parenting can have just as great an impact on a child’s life chances as income or class, sometimes greater.
According to some research, just the simple fact of a mother or father being interested in their child’s education can, alone, increase that child’s chances of moving out of poverty by 25%.
The truth is, when you have a child, you hold their fortunes in your hands. If you read to them, if you play with them, if you give them your attention, they will do better in life.
Bad parenting does the reverse. And so the question for Government is this: what can we do to help parents improve their children’s life chances?
There is no easy answer. The issue of how the state should be involved in something as private as raising a child has divided politicians for years.
But while I accept that it is a difficult line to tread, I don’t believe the previous Government got the balance right.
The Coalition Government takes a different view. A liberal view.
Liberals start from an optimism about people. And a realism about the state’s limitations.
We don’t expect to know better than you how to raise and love your children.
That doesn’t mean the nation’s parents are now on their own. This isn’t sink-or-swim government.
But what it does mean is that we don’t want to make your decisions for you; we want to make your choices possible.
Parents have had enough of the wagging finger; they want a helping hand.
Of course, this Government is not indifferent to the choices parents make.
We are not casual about the pressure that many parents feel – and I will come on to how we are helping relieve those pressures. Nor will we be apathetic when parents’ actions are clearly harmful to their children.
There are a small minority of families in which parents fail to nurture and provide for their children. Where they do not take proper responsibility. 
We don’t think that’s right. And we don’t expect the rest of our society to pick up the pieces.
So, although we won’t tell you how to be a parent, we do expect you to be a parent.
But our working assumption is this: most parents, most of the time, are trying to do the right thing by their children. And we are on their side. 
In these straitened times, with resources as stretched as they are, our priority has to be parents who need the most help. Parents in the most disadvantaged households.
Financial hardship, the stress and conflict it causes, can be hugely disruptive for families.
And worklessness is a pattern that repeats across generations. If you grow up in a home where your parents don’t work, you are much more likely not to work yourself.
For boys, if your father was regularly out of work during your childhood, you are more than twice as likely to end up in the same situation. You’re less likely to learn the value of work, less likely to get good grades, more likely to get into trouble.
In the UK there are now almost two million children growing up in workless households – one of the worst rates in Europe.
We have to help their parents into work.
Not because every home must have two working parents in it. If mothers or fathers can afford to stay at home, and want to, then that is their choice. But work can help people become better parents. And not simply because of the money.
But because it can help you become a better role model. It brings fulfilment. It fosters self-confidence. And it introduces parents to other working parents; people to learn from and talk to.
So we are transforming the welfare system to give more out-of-work parents these opportunities.
Crucially, our new simplified Universal Credit, which brings together an array of other benefits, will remove the perverse disincentives that can make the move into work so precarious for some of our poorest parents.
Under the current system, just a modestly paid job can result in a loss of £9 out of every £10 extra earned.
And on the issue of making work pay, we are also increasing the income tax personal allowance over the course of this Parliament.
As of April, 880,000 people will no longer pay income tax at all, and 23 million taxpayers will be up to £200 better off a year.
Of course, work alone does not make for wonderful parents. Mothers and fathers need other forms of support. 
So, in spite of the cuts that are now necessary to pay off the deficit, we are finding ways to provide that support.
At the Budget the Chancellor increased the child element of the Child Tax Credit - by £180 in 2011-12, and £110 in 2012-13; more than the level promised by the last Government.
And during the spending review we took the decision to protect free nursery education: 15 hours a week for all three and four year olds.

Ask any parent and they will tell you how important childcare is.
And what’s more we are also extending that entitlement to two year olds from the most disadvantaged households.
Support in these early years is absolutely critical. For so many children, the opportunities that await them have, to some extent, already been decided by the time they reach the school gates.

Equally, parents need other kinds of help. They need to be confident their children are getting the right support in the classroom.
That’s what our Pupil Premium is for. By the end of the Parliament we’ll be spending £2.5bn a year of additional money targeted at the most disadvantaged children in schools.
Money that will allow teachers to devote more time to children who are falling behind. Something we know is good for the whole class.
And we’re retaining Sure Start centres. As the Demos report suggests, keeping them accessible to all. But at the same time, using Sure Start to deliver proven early intervention programmes for families in the greatest need.
We’re bringing in an extra 4,200 health visitors – increasing the number working with families by almost 50%.
And, on top of that, because we recognise that relationships between parents are so important to their children’s wellbeing, we are providing funding for continued relationship support.
These kinds of investments can make the world of difference, especially for parents under financial pressure.
No magic wand solutions. No preaching.
Just some help, because we understand the pressures you are under – finding a job, giving your child a good education, making your relationship work. We will do whatever we can to make those things easier and the rest – the decisions, the choices, the lifestyle – is up to you.
The other way we can really help is by helping parents better balance work and home. That is something all working parents struggle with. Right now, most simply do not have flexibility they need. Despite the fact fathers can request flexible working, many feel reluctant to do so. There is still a stigma attached. And, when a child is born, men are still only entitled to a paltry two weeks of paternity leave.
These rules patronize women and marginalise men. They're based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners.
That's an Edwardian system that has no place in 21st Century Britain.
Women suffer. Mothers are expected to take on the vast bulk of childcare themselves. If they don't, they very often feel judged. If they do, they worry about being penalised at work.
So it's no surprise that many working women feel that they can't win.
Children suffer, too often missing out on time with their fathers. Time that is desperately important to their development.
We know that where fathers are involved in their children's lives they develop better friendships, they learn to empathise, they have higher self esteem, and they achieve better at school.
And men suffer too. More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children. But too many feel that they can't.
That culture must change. Government won’t be able to change it alone. But we can do our bit by modernising the opportunities for parents who work.
So the Coalition Agreement commits us to a universal right to request flexible working.
Extending flexible working beyond mothers and fathers is essential if we are to dispel the stigma many men, and some employers, still attach to it.
By extending flexible leave, for example to grandparents, or close family friends, we hope to make it much more common – a cultural norm.
We will be saying more about this shortly. And we hear loud and clear the message in today’s report that any reform must be active rather than passive; designed in such a way that encourages people to use it. 
What I can confirm today, however, is that plans are now well underway to overhaul the UK’s arrangements for shared parental leave.

As of this April, we will be implementing the changes agreed by the last Government. 
Under these new arrangements, if a mother returns to work before the end of her maternity leave, the father will be able to take the remaining time, up to a maximum of six months.
On that, I'd like to pay tribute to Harriet Harman, who pushed through those changes despite the resistance she came up against in the last Government.
But we want to go further. We know that men need to be actively encouraged to take time off. And often parents want more flexibility than these arrangements will allow. 
So in the coming weeks we will be launching a consultation on a new properly flexible system of shared parental leave, that we aim to introduce in 2015.
I would have liked it to be sooner. But getting this right will take time.
The options we are working through will have massive consequences for parents up and down the country, and they have to be considered carefully. It would be wholly irresponsible to rush these changes
And, at a time of continued economic uncertainty, we cannot just spring them on employers.
We need to work with business to make absolutely sure that, from their point of view, the new system is sustainable and affordable. And that, ultimately, leaves British companies benefitting from a happier, more productive workforce.
We want to create an environment that encourages parents and their employers to discuss leave plans openly and constructively. And we want to help businesses keep the staff that they have invested in.
But I want to make clear that these reforms are a priority of mine, and of the Prime Minister's.
We don't have a final, fixed view on the precise details of the new system. But we do know the principles we want it to embody.
One: any new arrangement must absolutely maintain women's guaranteed right to time off in the first months after birth, paid as it is now; and we must protect the rights of lone mothers.
Two: the reforms must transform the opportunities for fathers to take time off to care for their children.
Three: it must be possible for mother and fathers to share part of their leave, splitting it between them, in whatever way suits them best.
Four: the new system must take into account the needs of employers and it must be simple to administer.
There are a number of ideas on the table.
For example, we’re looking at how we can keep mothers’ existing rights following the birth, as well as fathers' existing two week entitlement, but then, beyond that, share the overall allowance between parents - pay as well as leave.
And share it in a whole range of ways. So both parents could, say, be off at the same time if they wanted to be. And leave could - in agreement with employers - be taken in a number of chunks rather than a single block.

Crucially, we're also looking at what can be done to encourage men to take more leave. Possibly, for example, through use-it-or-lose it blocks of time, especially reserved for fathers.
International evidence shows how important these can be in increasing take up among men.
And, in an ideal world any use-it-or-lose-it leave for dads would be in addition to the current total allowance for parents.
That, of course, costs money, and could prove unaffordable. And clearly any changes need to reflect the difficult economic circumstances we find ourselves in. But it is right that we look at this option as we work through the consultation.
It's also vital that these reforms aren't just for rich and affluent families.
As we work out the new arrangements we want to do everything we can to make sure they will be taken up by the thousands of parents in what I call Alarm Clock Britain.
Parents who work hard; who pay their bills; who try to stay out of debt.
People who aren’t well off enough to feel completely secure, but earn enough not to have to rely on the state.
People who want the best for their families. Who want both mothers and fathers to be involved in bringing up their young children.
Too many of these parents feel trapped by the current, rigid rules. We want to give them the flexibility that sets them free. 
So, to sum up, let me once again thank Demos for this important piece of work.
This is not an easy area for Government, but the Coalition Government will seek to get the balance right.
Supporting and empowering parents, particularly those most in need, and particularly in these difficult times.
And helping all parents better balance work and home.
We are very clear: the society we want to create – where every child can do well – will only ever be a pipe dream unless we work with parents to get there. 
Thank you.

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