It’s time for a better deal for working parents – we need a childcare revolution

We should be celebrating, not berating, the role parents play in the workforce and in society.

Working parents, and mums particularly, get a raw deal. Often seen as scatty and clock watching, they face prejudice at work and can often be singled out for being more interested in what’s happening around the kitchen table than the boardroom table.

I want to champion working parents and bust this myth, so in my first keynote speech as shadow minister for childcare and children today, I’m calling for a new debate about the role of working parents and their contribution to the workplace and society.

Parents are highly productive at work because they have to be, often doing a day's work even before leaving the house. Yet many still feel guilty for leaving the kids and going out to work. My generation of women expected that we could 'have it all' but we are all too often still having to choose between career and motherhood.

Balancing work and family life has become increasingly difficult for many parents. Public policy has failed to keep up with the changes in family life. We now have more women than ever in work; more women who want to work, and more who need to work; more and more dads want to play an active role; families need to work more hours and more anti-social hours to make ends meet; parents not only struggle to get by but also struggle for the time and space to enjoy their kids.

That’s why we need a childcare revolution that puts parents in the driving seat and gives mums and dads a real choice about when and how they want to return to work after having a baby. To realise this step change, we need an ambitious agenda for childcare and family policy to crack the impenetrable glass ceiling for working mums.

Labour’s new policy of an extension of free childcare for three and four year olds with working parents from 15 to 25 hours and the introduction of a primary childcare guarantee to help families manage before and after school care demonstrate that we are serious about supporting working mums and dads.

I will work with parents and the sector to develop an ambitious agenda for childcare and family policy that meets the needs of families today and in the future. Working to build a movement for radical childcare reform that leads to a cultural shift in how we see childcare, how we value parents in the workplace and how we set a generation of women free.

As the IPPR have reported today, boosting childcare will benefit the economy and increase maternal employment. In the same way we make the economic case for infrastructure projects, we will show that childcare isn’t an optional extra but fundamental to our future economic prosperity.

Labour is the party of the family. The party of parents and the party of women. Labour understands this childcare challenge. I will champion this mission.

Lucy Powell MP is the shadow minister for childcare and children  

Paradise Park Sure Start Centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Getty
Show Hide image

She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain