On Sunday morning I was due to take part in a small panel for BBC South along with 9 other residents to put forward questions to local members of the three main political parties – Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservative.
Due to the terror attacks in London on Saturday night the BBC took the decision to cancel the panel, which was a shame but totally understandable given the circumstances.
As I had prepared my questions in advance I decided to contact the three candidates who would have been in attendance to get their views on the topics most important to me, and, perhaps, other local parents.
I had hoped to provide a balanced post with answers from all three parties, however I only received answers back from Vikki Slade, the Mid Dorset & North Poole candidate for the Liberal Democrats. I did hear back from Conservative party candidate for Bournemouth West Conor Burns, however I hadn’t received his answers back at the time of publishing the post (with the election now just two days away I couldn’t hold off any longer). At the time of writing, both of my emails had been unanswered by labour candidate for Christchurch Patrick Canavan.
I had been unsure which party to vote for in the past few weeks. I sat and read through the key points of each policy and thought I had made my decision and now, having read through Vikki’s answers to my below questions, I am comfortable and reassured with my decision. The liberal democrats are a party with a policy most in line with my concerns for politics and the fact that Vikki replied promptly to my emails on Sunday made a big impression.
1. Many policies mention additional funding for children who are not yet of school age. As a mum of three children, one of whom has received the 15 hours funding I am interested to know why further funding is being promised by parties when the current funding doesn’t cover the fees of most childcare providers?
This has meant, for me personally, and for others as well, that providers are having to find other ways to top up the amount not covered by funding, either by charging additional extras or by increasing the fees for those not receiving funding/for additional non-funded hours.
This means that the ‘free’ hours of childcare aren’t actually free. It seems that this should have been tackled before increasing the number of hours of funding.
Having said that, I am keen for the promise of funding for younger age brackets to be put into place, as the current 3-4 years doesn’t help those who wish to return to work following maternity leave who are struggling with the childcare costs to be able to do so.
Personally I would think funding should be prioritised to the younger children rather than those almost at school age. I would be interested to hear your opinions on these points.
Vikki: All four of my children have had the benefit of “free” childcare, and in every case the costs were not fully covered. I am also aware that nurseries are struggling to provide the highest quality care, safe nurturing environment and fully qualified staff for the money they receive. I have agreed to work with them to try and improve this. I am also frustrated that parents feel forced into using nurseries rather than other options like childminders and peer-caring. I support the new ChildcarePassport that Under-5s providers are working on.
I will push for higher levels of “per child” funding to be provided so that free means free. I am also pleased that rather than increasing the “free” cover to 30hrs, the Liberal Democrats prefer the introduction of funding for the provision of care for children aged 9 months to 2years.
Liberal Democrats would also extend our early years pupil premium to £1000 per child, which will help nurseries to fund the additional support that children from poorer backgrounds and children in care may need and to prevent the gap between their attainment and that of their peers developing. It should be noted that if those children have the extra support funded and the children progress better, the provider – be it nursery or when they reach school – needs to dedicate less direct attention towards those children which helps all children.
2. Lots of parents, myself included, require flexible hours in a job to be able to literally work around being a parent. For example, to be able to afford to work I would need to be able to drop my children to school and my youngest to nursery or a childminder before going to work and then picking them up again on the way home. These kind of hours are simply not offered by the majority of employers who stick strictly to the 9-5, and often means that mothers (and sometimes fathers) are not able to work at all.
A lot of employers are still passing by applicants who are mothers at the interview stage, something which should not be allowed but is happening nonetheless. This issue doesn’t seem to be a priority for any of the parties during this campaign, are you able to tell me what your thoughts are on this and whether there are any future plans to help enforce flexible working hours for parents in the workplace and prevent discrimination against applicants who are parents?
Vikki: I have been an employer and I am also a mum who often needs to work from home to deal with sick children, or take time off to deal with appointments, teacher training days or attend events that are important in my children’s lives. It can be very difficult for employers to provide flexible working, especially for those who have very specialist skills or where they are very small businesses. It would be difficult to enforce flexible working on them, but we should make it easier for parents to ask for trial periods. I have a friend who has just been rejected for a part time return to work after maternity leave, and I feel strongly that this is wrong.
Large companies are now expected to publish their gender pay gap and Liberal Democrats have plans to extend this to show the pay gap beween the highest and average worker. I would like to see this extended to the number of people who have asked for and been accepted/rejected for flexible working, if only to make companies take a more careful look at this. We would also scrap fees for employment tribunals so that those who have been dealt with poorly can challenge their employer. For those applicants who are parents, we must call out inappropriate questioning that allows employers to discriminate against parents or those with caring responsibillties.
3. As a parent of a school age child, with my daughter also starting school this September, I am part of one of many UK families who face huge price increases for holidays out of term time (sometimes prices are up to triple the amount at these times).
If penalties are to remain in place for those who choose to take holidays outside of these times, which to an extent I can understand, I feel that the government need to address the issue of the price of breaks during the school holidays. As it stands currently it is the lower income families who are missing out as those able to afford it will either pay the fines or the higher priced holidays. Are there any future plans to address this issue and work with UK airlines and places in the UK such as Center Parcs to cap prices or a benefit scheme to aid poorer families during holiday times?
Vikki: When this policy was first announced back in 2013 or 2014, I was actually in Holland taking my own children on holiday during term time. At the time my husband and I ran a business where not only was the school holidays our busiest time but also the time our staff expected to take their holidays. We also have 4 children so the cost of a holiday in the UK or abroad is simply out of reach at peak times.
The Liberal Democrats passed a policy motion last year to reverse this policy and to put the power back in the hands of the headteacher taking account of the attendance record and impact on the children concerned.
With regard to forcing holiday companies to cap prices, this would be very difficult, as prices increase because demand increases. I would like to see a review of school holidays per se. For working parents, for educational attainment and for our more flexible lifestyle I think we should reduce the summer school holiday period to 4 weeks and redistribute the extra time throughout the year – possibly extending the easter break and either the Christmas or half term. Trying to find childcare for 6 long weeks over the summer is extremely expensive and from my own experience children forget much of their learning (especially younger children) and have to waste the first few weeks catching up.
4. My son is currently in year one and has benefited from the free school meals for the past two years. This year especially it has been a huge help for us as a family as I am currently on maternity leave after having my third child last October. Surviving on one, relatively low, income has meant the free school lunch my son receives has really helped. Can you provide your party’s stance on free school meals and explain this when looking at a real life case such as my own?
Vikki: I was part of the Liberal Democrat team who brought forward free school meals for infants. I presented a short Channel 4 documentary about this policy and my own daughter who is now 9 years old benefitted from the policy for one year. I noticed a marked difference in her – she had previously refused many different foods, but during this one year her social skills improved, she developed new tastes (particularly for chicken curry and bolognaise as well as a wider range of vegetables) and all the children ate together, rather than the school meals children eating in the hall and the rest of the children eating with their friends in their classrooms.
I completely support the extension of this to all primary age children, who benefit from increased concentration and most need the balanced diet that the school lunch can bring. My husband is a school chef and he has a responsibility to make the meal nutritionally balanced and the children for whom he cooks are healthier for it.
With wages stagnant, or falling in real terms, and child benefit and other working age benefits frozen it is important that all children whatever their background have the opportunity for this meal. It should be noted that it is not compulsory – if parents feel it is not necessary they can pass on the opportunity.
As a mother herself, I feel Vikki can relate and understand the issues myself and other parents face, and her explanation of her party’s policies has helped my decision. However, this post is by no means aimed at swaying you, as my readers, into voting for the same party as I am. What I do hope it achieves is to give you the prompt you might need to get out there and vote on Thursday. In the face of the atrocities being committed in the UK these days, I think now more than ever it is important to use your vote.
Regardless of which party you plan to vote for on Thursday, please make sure you do, your vote matters.