Working parents invariably find themselves torn between the demands of the office and home. When a child becomes sick, they often have to feign illness themselves or take paid holiday to look after it. The Government wants to encourage employers to help parents achieve a better balance.
In its Fairness at Work White Paper, published earlier this summer, it has proposed new 'family-friendly' policies. These include a right to parental leave, including up to 12 weeks unpaid leave per year to care for children under eight years old. Pressure groups have welcomed the Government's intention but many say the proposals do not go far enough.
The Government is simply bowing to the pressures of Europe, says Lucy Anderson, women's equality officer at the TUC. The Parental Leave Directive says that, from 1999, fathers and mothers in member states should have the right to take time off work in these circumstances. Anderson argues that the Government needs to think more imaginatively. In particular, she points out: 'Parental leave won't be much good to many working parents if it is not paid.' Sue Monk, director of Parents at Work, agrees but adds: 'We don't want to see something that would make it harder for women to be employed.'
Both want parents to be paid through a social insurance scheme. Anderson believes this could either form part of the national insurance system or be a separate scheme where employers, employees and the state share the costs. 'They all share the benefit, so I see no reason why the costs shouldn't be shared,' she says.
The Government can legislate but legislation alone will not prompt employers to take responsibility. As Alison Garnham, policy officer for The National Council for One Parent Families explains: 'It would be possible to legislate for carers' leave and job-sharing but it would be very difficult to force employers to hire certain types of people.' Instead, she says there should be 'encouragement not legislation'. Singling out smaller companies as having the least resources to support a family-friendly approach, she is more concerned to see a change in employer attitude, than parental rights enshrined in law.
This, she believes, is what will achieve greater flexibility in the workplace.
She is also eager to see more flexible working hours including term-time work patterns. Single parents face the greatest difficulties juggling work and home, she says, and employers should recognise their special needs.
Childcare is essential for those juggling work and home. Stephen Burke, spokesman for the Daycare Trust, says the tax system should treat all childcare equally. Currently, employers can claim tax relief for a workplace nursery and the employee is not taxed on the benefit. Other forms of childcare such as vouchers are treated as taxable benefits, however. 'We need a level playing-field for the tax treatment of childcare, which currently favours workplace nurseries,' says Burke. 'The White Paper recognises the need for family-friendly policies but it does little to implement them,' he says.