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HomePoliticsPhoebe Arslanagić-Little: The Conservative manifesto should make a generous offer to parents |...

Phoebe Arslanagić-Little: The Conservative manifesto should make a generous offer to parents | Conservative Home

Phoebe Arslanagić-Little is Head of the New Deal for Parents at Onward.

In the UK, women are having fewer children than they want, and overall birth rates are falling. At the same time, we have an ageing population and are suffering all the associated pressures that come with it.

Already in 2020, State Pension, adult social care, and healthcare costs accounted for 35 per cent of UK government spending; by 2070, the OBR projects this will increase to an incredible 50 per cent.

To shift the dial and help everyone have the families that they want, we need a new raft of policies to support parents and prospective parents.

Yet with the election a little under a month away, Conservative policy announcements have thus far been laser-targeted at older voters, and there’s nothing to suggest that Labour is crafting a rejuvenated, modern, family-friendly policy offer.

But with the need to close the ‘birth gap’ both a matter of individual flourishing and economic prudence, this is prime policy territory for a Conservative Party that wants to show it’s serious about the UK’s future.

So, what could the pro-parent policies that deserve a place in the Conservative Manifesto look like? First, let working parents keep more of their money.

In having children, every parent is making a tremendous contribution to the UK’s collective prosperity. Yet the costs of raising and supporting a family are borne by individual parents alone and we do not do enough to reflect the gift parents are making to our shared future.

New parents, especially mums, must work less and make do with Statutory Maternity Payments that are on average much less than they would usually earn. There is the simple cost of supporting a growing family, from food and clothes, to childcare and after-school activities.

Moreover, people are most likely to become parents in their late twenties and early thirties, when they are less likely to be wealthy and financially stable than those in older age groups.

Already, governments use the tax system to unite private and social incentives, rewarding important prosocial behaviour: ISAs encourage investment and saving by giving retail investors a tax-free way of investing their money; the Gift Aid Scheme rewards charitable donations by giving higher rate taxpayers some tax relief on money gifted to charity.

Why not use our tax system to ease the financial burdens upon parents and show parents that what they are doing is highly valued?

A child tax allowance, reducing the amount of tax that parents, particularly those of young children, would mean working parents keep more of their own money. At the same time, it would send a strong national signal of support to parents.

Second, better access to fertility assistance.

All of us who would like to have children hope that our path to parenthood will be smooth and not require medical assistance. But for the 9-15 per cent of couples who have fertility problems, things are not so simple.

National guidelines recommend that all eligible women under 40 receive three free rounds of IVF treatment on the NHS. But around 90 per cent of NHS Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) do not meet that standard, instead offering only one or two rounds, and often adding in extra eligibility criteria.

Lesbian couples must pay out of pocket for artificial insemination before being eligible for IVF. Access is highly variable: a lesbian couple living in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough ICB area, for example, must self-fund 12 of these cycles before accessing IVF.

Earlier this year, even former health minister Neil O’Brien MP wrote about how this IVF postcode lottery meant himself and his wife considered uprooting and moving to Northumberland for better access to treatment.

Efforts to close the birth gap and do our utmost to help those wishing to start a family must include improving access to the fertility treatment that many need. ICBs must stop treating fertility assistance as an optional extra that can be discarded when budgets are tight.

Scotland already meets the standard of ensuring every eligible woman has access to three free rounds of IVF. The Conservatives should promise to bring England and Wales up to that benchmark.

Third, make employment work for parents.

Good employment rights give parents and prospective parents the stability and certainty to make major life decisions, protecting family life, and creating a smooth path back into work for those who have taken time out or reduced their hours.

The current design of Statutory Paternity Leave fails to meet this standard, giving UK dads a mere two weeks off work. The arrival of a new baby is not only a joyful but a demanding time for parents, yet fathers have but a brief respite in which to support their partners before leaving them to cope alone.

Ordinary people see clearly the absurdity of the two-week offer, with 60 per cent of Brits supporting an extension of Statutory Paternity Leave to 12 weeks.

Happily, 29 per cent of dads do have access to more generous leave through their employers. This is very positive – but perhaps also explains why this issue is under-discussed in middle class political and journalistic circles. Fathers with access to this enhanced leave are much more likely to be higher earners; it is families lower down the socio-economic spectrum who have to get by with their two weeks.

A Conservative plan to update Statutory Paternity Leave for the modern era, in which we understand that the role of fathers is vital and new mums need support, would be extremely welcome and make a huge difference to families.

Any parent or prospective parent will quickly grasp how these proposed policies can make a tangible, positive difference in their lives. They are inclusive in the best and most meaningful sense of that word, concerned not with how and when people choose to become parents but in opening up access to family life so that everyone has the chance to say yes to the delights and challenges of parenthood.

At the same time, they are clear-eyed about the future of this country, the tremendous potential of each child, and the need to meet the challenge of an ageing society head on.

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