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Childcare options for working parents

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It was recently announced that Boris Johnson is proposing to cut the cost of childcare by lowering the legal limit on adult supervision for nursery children. This forms part of the government’s plan to relax certain health and safety rules to ease the cost-of-living crisis.

The UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the world  and with inflation at a 30-year high and bills continuing to rise, it is clear that change is needed. However, many are sceptical that the government’s proposal would create health and safety risks and lower the quality of childcare without actually improving the cost and availability of childcare for working parents in the UK.

With the spotlight on childcare in the UK at the moment, we thought it would be useful to recap what options are currently available to employees.

Government Schemes

There are various government schemes to support working parents with childcare costs:

  • Tax-free childcare - Parents can receive up to £500 every 3 months (up to £2,000 a year) for each of their children to help with the costs of childcare. This goes up to £1,000 every 3 months if a child is disabled (up to £4,000 a year).
  • 15 to 30 hours free childcare – Parents may be able to receive up to 30 hours free childcare if they live in England and their child is 3 to 4 years old.

There are certain eligibility requirements for both schemes depending on if parents are working, their income, the child’s age and circumstances and the parents’ immigration status.

Request for Flexible Working

Flexible working is where an employee adapts their working arrangement to suit their needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, working part time, job sharing or working from home. Unsurprisingly this is a right that is often utilised by working parents to help manage their childcare needs.

All employees who have been employed by their employer for at least 26 weeks have the right to request flexible working, including if they are a parent, carer or returning from maternity leave. Employees can only make one application for flexible working a year.

There are certain requirements on how an employee can make a request including that it must be in writing and that it must contain certain information.

Employers must deal with requests in a ‘reasonable manner’ and can only refuse an application if they have a good business reason for doing so (these reasons are prescribed by law). An employer needs to notify the employee of their decision within three months of the date of the request.

Most employers will have a Flexible Working Policy setting out the procedure for eligible employees to exercise their right to request changes to their working arrangements.

Annual Leave

Lots of employees rely on taking annual leave to assist with childcare, particularly in school holidays. Any requests for annual leave have to be made in accordance with an employer’s usual policies and procedures and any requests are usually subject to prior approval.

Time off for Dependants

Employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to take necessary action to deal with unexpected events affecting their dependants. Whilst this right cannot be exercised to facilitate long-term childcare, if a working parent has a short-term childcare issue (such as if a child minder is ill) they may be able to agree a temporary period of unpaid leave with their employer in accordance with this right.

Employees must tell their employer ‘as soon as is reasonably practicable’ confirming the reason for their absence and how long they expect to be away from work.

Most employers will have a Time Off For Dependants Policy setting out the procedure for eligible employees to exercise their right to request time off for dependants.

Parental Leave

Employees also have the right to request to take parental leave Whilst this is a right exclusively for parents, it is not commonly utilised in practice.

Employees can take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave per child (and a maximum of 4 weeks in any given year) for each child up to the age of 18 years old. Special rules apply where an employee’s child is disabled.

Parental leave can be flexible in terms of the time at which it is taken and the way in which the total leave entitlement may be split up into a number of shorter periods.

There are eligibility requirements for parental leave including that the employee must have worked for the employer for at least one year, have (or expect to have) responsibility for a child and be taking the leave to spend time with or care for the child.

Again, most employers will have a Parental Leave Policy setting out the procedure for eligible employees to exercise their right to request parental leave.

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