Webchat with Maria Miller

Maria Miller, shadow minister for the family, came on to Mumsnet for a live webchat on 17 July 2008. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Work-life balance as a woman MP | Women in politics | Tory proposals to improve work-life balance | Splitting parental leave | Long-hours culture: should MPs lead by example? | Affordable childcare | Lone parents, working hours and changes to benefits | Helping parents of disabled children to work | Useful links

Hi everyone, and welcome to Maria Miller, who'll try to answer as many of your questions as possible over the next hour.

Work-life balance as an MP

Lalaa: How do you balance supporting your children at school (I'm presuming at least one of them must be there), for example, reading with them every day, with working as an MP? Do you help out at school (by listening to readers, for example, or by actively participating in the PTA)?

Maria Miller: Good question. It isn't easy. The hours can be very long, especially when the House is sitting very late into the night. I think Parliament could be reformed so the hours are more family friendly. This, I think, would help encourage more women to come into Parliament. At the moment the number of women in Parliament is embarrassingly low, particularly if you look at other countries in Europe where the number of men and women is nearly equal. In my own party, only 17 MPs are women. Shocking. But it is changing - the number of women candidates we have in place for the next election is very high. That's great because we need more working mothers here in Parliament.

We have holidays (recess) once in a while when the House is not sitting. They're very similar to school holidays, happening at Christmas, Easter and summer. So I try and spend as much time with my children as possible during recess. When the House is sitting, I try to ring all of my children at the end of their school day. My husband is a City lawyer, so he works very long hours too. Luckily, we have live-in grandparents, who are the best form of childcare, and an au pair. I know that a lot of parents can’t afford such help and that is why I think it's important we make childcare as affordable as possible.

Hunkermunker: How soon after you had your children did you return to work, and did your finances have a bearing on your decision? I ask because responses from my MP seem to suggest that the fact that women get Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) means they can take the full year to which they're entitled off work, when in my experience, and that of most of my friends, that's cloud cuckoo land. This in turn means all the Government recommendations regarding, for example, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months become unnecessarily difficult

Maria Miller: Yes, with all of my three children I returned to work months after giving birth, largely because of financial necessity. I'm sure this is the case with most women out there. There isn't a choice about being a careerist or a stay-at-home mum - you have to do both, full stop. Nearly half of all mothers return to the workplace within six months of having a child. I'm very sympathetic to the fact that SMP may not provide the level of income required to meet the cost of living. That's why it's so important women have the option of flexible jobs so they can juggle home life with earning a decent wage.

Women in politics

Cinzia: Would you honestly, hand on heart, recommend being a woman MP?

 

Maria Miller: That's a tough one! I'm sure being an MP isn't for everybody. I really enjoy having the opportunity to bring a working mother's perspective to Parliament. But if we're going to get more women to be MPs, we need to make more changes to the way Parliament works. It doesn't feel very family friendly to work until 10.30pm two nights a week. I'm working on it!

emmybel: Do you think you'll see a woman prime minister in your lifetime?

 

Maria Miller: I decided I wanted to be involved in politics when there was a female PM! The biggest problem we face is the low number of women MPs at the moment. I was the 277th ever female MP. To ensure we get another woman prime minister, we need more women putting themselves forward for Parliament. Why don't you have a go?

emmybel: And a follow-up. Were you sad to see Hillary Clinton out of the running to be the Democratic candidate (from a women's point of view, that is)?

 

Maria Miller: I think it was sad she didn't make it as the Democratic candidate. But I wonder whether part of her problem was that she wasn't dealing with issues facing women as they are today. I think Obama has a better grasp of the issues affecting modern families in the US.

Tory proposals to improve work-life balance

Artichokes: What concrete proposals do the Conservatives have to tackle work-life balance if they get into power?

 

Maria Miller: Getting the right work-life balance is a real concern for most families in Britain today. Many parents want to and have to juggle having a job with looking after a family. That's why I really want to encourage businesses to adopt family-friendly practices. Those businesses that allow their employees to work flexibly know how beneficial it is for their workers, but also for their company. They retain the best people and have a happier, more productive workforce - 94% of employers agree that those employees who have a good work-life balance are more productive. I believe more companies should be giving their employees flexible working arrangements. We've called for the right to request flexible working to be extended to all parents with children under the age of 18.

Splitting parental leave

myredcardigan: I would like to ask what you think of the proposal that both parents could split the current statutory maternity leave between them. Perhaps Mum having a mandatory six weeks, then both partners using it how best it fits their lifestyle/income breakdown. My husband works for a large law firm. I know for a fact they're careful how many women of 'child-bearing' age they take on. If they thought a 30-year-old man was just as likely to take six months off as his female co-worker, this would help reduce discrimination in the workplace. I think this is very relevant to family work/life balance. Often families could live on one wage if it was Mum's, allowing Dad to SAH. Currently, that choice is not open to them. 

Maria Miller: I'm glad you support our proposal on splitting parental leave. The problem we still face is that the UK has one of the biggest gender pay gaps in Europe - 20% higher than the EU average - because at the moment all maternity benefits are loaded on the female. What we need to see is for parents to be given the choice to share the responsibility and share the time off work to look after their children. By giving both parents the opportunity to take parental leave after the birth of a child, we are also recognising that many more fathers want to have the opportunity to play an active part in their children's early years.

Long-hours culture: should MPs lead by example?

Katisha: Do you think MPs should lead by example? Someone I know works in government and the ministers seem to think nothing of calling early morning meetings, late evening meetings etc. I think we need a change of the long-hours culture in the workplace and it should start from the top.

Maria Miller: Absolutely. As long as my staff do the work and do their hours, I'm reasonably flexible with their starting and finishing times so they get the work-life balance they need. Other people have been asking questions about our long-hours culture compared to the rest of Europe. The statistics certainly substantiate this. We work on average just over an hour longer a week than the EU average. Over a year, an average British employee will work 8% longer than a French employee. Some jobs probably require long hours. But I think we need to be careful of presenteeism - the phenomenon whereby employees just stick around without having work to do. That's unhealthy.

Calypso7: Hi Maria, I've read on several occasions that Gordon Brown is a total workaholic and is up at 5am every morning to get to work. Don't you think the leaders should set an example? Isn't that the way to initiate a change? How does David Cameron balance his work/family life? Is he a workaholic too?

Maria Miller: Thanks for your question. Spot on. Everyone in a position of leadership, whatever type of organisation, sets the pace. I know from my time working in the advertising industry that people can fall into the trap of simply being there rather than focusing on doing a good job. I'm sure being PM is tough though! I'm not sure it's easy for Gordon Brown to be a good role model in that job. David Cameron has three young children, like me, and I know he makes sure that he is around as much as he can be to support his family. He told me that he makes sure he's there for bathtime at least once a week (better than some) and he doesn't get up at 5am - at least not to call me!

Affordable childcare

Maternal Touch: Holiday playschemes, certainly in my area of Derbyshire, are thin on the ground and very expensive, especially if you have more than one child. They also only go up to age 12. Do the Tories have any plans to impose statutory provision for affordable childcare on local councils?

Maria Miller: There's already a statutory duty on local authorities to ensure sufficient childcare in every community throughout the country (2006 Childcare Act). So, in theory, the supply of childcare should not be a problem. But in practice we know it is, particularly for older children (a recent 4children report showed that only a fraction of children over the age of 11 had access to childcare). In terms of affordability, the problem is that the childcare tax credit is proving too complex to deliver what it needs to, which is more affordability for those needing childcare. In fact, only one in four of those eligible is getting it. I believe we need to simplify the way the tax credit system works to make sure this help is getting to those people who need it.

Lone parents, working hours and changes to benefits

Little Bella: Maria, I'm a lone parent and I work 20 hours a week. With tax credits that means I'm able to have a good work-life balance, enough time to help my children with homework, reading, emotional needs etc, and pursue an interesting and fulfilling job. As I understand it, the Tories want to force all lone parents whose children are at secondary school (or is it age seven?) to work 30 hours per week. Can you tell me why it's the state's business to tell me how many hours to work? I understand that if I'm claiming tax credits the state might have the right to have some say in my work-life balance, but if you're going to abolish tax credits and all I have to live on is my wages, then surely it's my decision to say whether I'm prepared to sacrifice money for time, quality of life and the emotional health of my children? Since when have the Tories been so interventionist? Or is it just with us feckless lone mothers that it considers such intervention so necessary?

Maria Miller: This is something that has received a lot of media attention because the government is in the process of significantly tightening the rules for lone parents. By the time of the next general election there will be a situation where lone parents with children over the age of seven will no longer receive Income Support and will have been transferred to Jobseeker's Allowance. You have raised a number of important points and I'm concerned that though lone parents have the opportunity to work they're not forced to work hours which are completely incompatible with good parenting. It's our policy to give all parents with children under the age of 18 the right to seek flexible working from their employers.

Little Bella: It's your policy to make lone parents work 30 hours a week. My question was, why is it the state's business how many hours I week? I already have flexible working and I'm happy with 20 hours. Why is your party telling me I have to do 30? Please answer my question. 

Maria Miller: Sorry you thought I didn't answer your question. Yes, this is government policy and we have no plans to change it. But as I said before, we need to make sure that the definition of a reasonable job under Jobseeker's Allowance will not stop parents bringing up children the way they want to.

Little Bella: Maria, it's not correct to state that it's government policy to insist lone parents work 30 hours a week. But I do want to know if it's Conservative Party policy and if so, why, if the individual lone parent can live perfectly comfortably on the wages for 20 hours' work. I'm sorry but I don't believe you have engaged with the substance of my question. Sorry for banging on, but I'd like this answered because I've read that this is policy, but whenever I ask anyone from the Tory party about it they will neither confirm nor deny it. If you don't know, that's fine, just say so.

Maria Miller: LittleBella, I think you're thinking of the report issued by Iain Duncan Smith MP and the Centre for Social Justice. It isn't our policy, but they are reccommendations to the shadow cabinet.

Helping parents of disabled children to work

Graciefer: Hi Maria. As a mother of two young boys who both have disabilities, I want to know what, if any, plans does your party have to help carers either remain in employment, or indeed return to some form of employment?

Maria Miller: One of the most difficult problems facing carers of disabled children is finding childcare. Many parents find getting back into the workplace difficult because their local childcarers may not have the necessary expertise. I would like more support given to the national childminding networks to provide training and support on caring for children with disabilities. This Monday I went to a Children's Centre to meet childminders who care for disabled children and talked to them about the support they get - it would be good to see similar schemes nationwide. Thanks for your question. 

Useful links

Talk: Maria Miller live webchat

Home Front: what do mums and dads need to make life work?

Talk: employment issues

Talk: going back to work

Talk: freelancers/ self-employed

childminders, nannies, au pairs etc

Big issues: Talk: childcare and going back to work

Last updated: 23-Apr-2009 at 2:54 PM