Labour's childcare plans will give women the support they need to work

Our pledge to provide all parents with access to childcare through their school from 8am-6pm will give men and women equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace.

Tonight I will talking on Channel 4's Political Slot about the cost of living crisis afflicting men - and particularly women - across the country. Under this Tory-led government, the number of women out of work reached a 25-year high earlier this year and there are currently 1.05 million unemployed women across the UK.

Between 2010 and April this year, the number of women without work rose by 12%, whilst the number of unemployed men fell over the same period. The Fawcett Society has projected female unemployment may rise to 1.5 million by 2018. If we want to tackle this and give men and women equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace, then we need to address the challenge parents have accessing quality childcare.

Labour has recognised this and announced this week that we will introduce a 'primary childcare guarantee' - giving all parents of primary school children guaranteed access to childcare through their school from 8am-6pm.

I know from speaking with hundreds of constituents and hearing the experience of many friends that it's really hard to juggle full time work with a child or children in primary school. In fact, 62% of parents of school-age children say that they need some form of before-and-after school care in order to combine family and work. But nearly three in ten of these parents are unable to find it. Too many parents can't find the childcare they need to fit around their working day.

Labour's commitment builds on what we did in government. It was Labour who introduced the extended schools policy - offering breakfast clubs so children could be at school from 8; and after-school clubs so parents could pick up at the end of the work day - rather than having to make special arrangements to collect when school finished up to three hours earlier.

As a former school governor, I saw how valuable extended schools were. While I was evaluating a breakfast club back in 2008, I met mums and dads at the school gate anxiously waiting for the door to open so they could drop off their kids and get to work; I witnessed students enjoying some time before the formal start of the learning day to eat a proper breakfast, use the computers (which many didn't have at home) and settle in. Likewise after-school clubs provided children with quiet rooms for homework, safe outdoor space for playing football and other supervised activities. The benefits for both parents and children of these clubs were significant - it was one of Labour's unsung successes.

That's why it was so depressing to learn last year that since the Tory-led government abandoned the extended schools programme, 37% of local authorities have reported a cut in the number of after-school clubs locally and 44% have seen breakfast clubs close in their area.

I saw the impact of this firsthand when I held a local childcare summit in my constituency a few months ago. Parents and I discussed the government's then plans to cut the number of staff needed to look after children - an idea subsequently scrapped because it was such a terrible, poorly informed proposal. It was clear from our conversations that those mums and dads were really struggling because of the lack of access to wraparound care at their childrens' primary school.

Household incomes are seriously being squeezed. Some parents report working part time when they want and need to be working full time. Others have said they've been adversely affected on a zero hours contract and haven't received subsequent hours because they aren't available for a full working day. For children whose parents feel they have no choice, it means taking themselves to school and returning to an empty home.

With so many hardworking families being hit by this cost of living crisis, David Cameron's government should be doing all it can to build an economy that works for working people. They shouldn't make it harder for parents who want to work.

Labour has given a clear commitment for what we would do to help mums and dads. It's good news for our economy, good news for parents and, most importantly, will make a real difference to children everywhere.

A National Union of Teachers stand ask delegates 'What is education for' at the Labour Party conference on September 22, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and Shadow Minister for Energy & Climate Change.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.