Changes to family policy: What opinion polls say about the coalition and current Conservative manifestos

In August 2014, David Cameron stated that all government policies would have to pass a “families test” which considered the policies’ impact on families. At the start of last month the new Shared Parental Leave policy came into force, allowing couples to share parental leave more evenly between themselves. And in the 2015 Conservative manifesto had an explicit focus on family, including a new pledge to give “working families” 30 hours of free childcare a week.

Here we review some results from previous opinion polling, in particular looking at the new Shared Parental Leave – how popular will it be and how can take-up be encouraged. We then consider the free childcare policy laid out by Conservatives and how popular it will be.

Shared parental leave

Shared Parental Leave came into effect on April 5th, but our polling paints a mixed picture of what level of take-up could be expected. In a poll on behalf of the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) in April last year 67% of respondents said they would consider using the new shared leave rules. The rate was slightly higher amongst the men in our sample – 70% would consider sharing leave vs. 63% of women. However, in a poll on behalf of Netmums only 29% of respondents said they would have shared parental leave at the birth of their last child if the option had been available.

A bit on methodology

The divergence in responses is not totally inexplicable. Part of the divergence is due to a difference in the way the question was phrased. NCT respondents were asked, “Is sharing parental leave more equally between yourself and your partner something you would consider if you were to have a/another child, once shared parental leave becomes available after 2015?”, whilst Netmums respondents were asked “When your youngest child was born, would you have shared your parental leave with your partner had the option been available?”.

The Netmums question is more restrictive in two ways. Firstly it refers to a past event, which is more strictly defined than a future event and so carries fewer possibilities. Secondly, its wording refers to an action as opposed to a consideration, and so is stronger. The Netmums figure is probably closer to the reality of actual take-up rates.

The other difference between responses is demographic. The NCT survey was answered by “new parents” with a child under 5, and “prospective parents” aged under 45 with no young child. The Netmums survey was answered only by Netmums users aged over 18. Considering only “new parents” in the NCT sample does lower the number who would consider sharing leave slightly, to 63%. Overall, as the Netmums survey was only asked to Netmums users there is more of a selection bias when considering the results in a national context.

Despite the difference in reporting rates, the reasons for not using shared parental leave are broadly consistent between the two data sets. 36% of women in the NCT survey said their main reason was that they enjoyed spending time with their children too much to want to return to work, whilst 24% the income generated by their partner’s pay, and enjoying, were both top 2 options for 50% of the women responding. In the Netmums survey the ordering of reasons is different, but the top 2 remain similar. 42% said they wanted to stay home, whilst 22% said they couldn’t afford to lose their partner’s earnings.

Increasing take-up of shared leave

If take-up of the new policy is low, there are some areas for possible developments. The prevalence of income as a reason for not taking advantage of the policy shows that a more generous financial package could increase uptake, but there are less fiscal changes that could also make a difference. 73% of the NCT respondents said they would be more likely to take advantage of shared leave if it were available on a part-time basis, for example with one parent taking 2 days off a week and the other taking 3 days. Additionally, in a survey for Grandparents Plus, 50% of parents said they should be able to share leave with grandparents if the parents did not want to take it themselves.

Cameron’s policies

Whilst offering something for free is rarely a bad political decision, Cameron’s offer of up to 30 hours of free childcare will be extremely popular amongst the mothers it no doubt aims to target. When asked what their top priority for change in families & government policy would be, 26% of Netmums users chose subsidised childcare, making it the most popular area for change. This came ahead of a rise in the minimum wage (21%) and requiring firms to offer more flexible jobs (14%).

However, even when changes to family policy have been focused on cuts Cameron appears to have judged it well. Changes to child benefit in the end of the last government mean that if one parent earns over £50,000 they will not be entitled to the full level of child benefit. Over half of Netmums respondents agreed that child benefit should be limited above a certain income threshold. Another 27% supported a cap on the number of children it could be claimed for. Only 19% of respondents felt there should be no criterion applied to claiming child benefits.

And finally, Cameron’s focus on the importance of the family unit will be striking a chord with many. In our research for Grandparents Plus, 78% of parents said they relied on the assistance of their parents in bringing up their children, highlighting the continued role of the family unit. Without this assistance, 30% of respondents said either they or their partner would have to give up their job. Hopefully Cameron’s childcare proposals will be a great help to those that can’t rely on their parents.

Lucy Makinson
Researcher, Survation Ltd

To view the tables for April’s Netmums Poll click here.
To view the tables for the February Grandparents Plus Poll click here.
To view the tables for last April’s NCT Poll click here.

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