With the General Election now only days away have you decided how you will vote or are you still open to persuasion? Have you heard all you need to hear from the political parties, or do you still have questions when it comes to the issues that really matter to you? As a voice for parents, and children, in Northern Ireland Ni4kids Editor Nadia Duncan spoke to three candidates who are all hoping to secure a seat at Westminster; Claire Hanna, SDLP, Robbie Butler, UUP and Nuala McAllister, Alliance Party, about their thoughts on the all-too-often overlooked day-to-day struggles that don’t get mentioned much on the live debate shows – but are crucial to families with young children such as childcare, flexible working, the smacking ban and more…
Images L-R Claire Hanna, SDLP (Belfast South) Robbie Butler, UUP (Lagan Valley) & Nuala McAllister, Alliance Party (Belfast North)
Q) Northern Ireland has the least amount of free childcare offered to parents of 3 and 4-year-olds in the UK which is currently 12.5 hours per week. That is limited to 2.5 hours a day – either in the morning or afternoon – which doesn’t enable a parent to go out to work, compared to the 30 free hours offered in England. Under our devolved government (when we had one) there were no plans to extend free childcare for working parents. Surely access to free and affordable childcare is crucial to enable parents to go to work and support the economy, so what are your plans or commitments in terms of supporting parents, and in particular mums, who want to work but are prevented from doing so because of the lack of free and affordable childcare here?
“We’re not valuing childcare and I think the reason for that is because in the majority it’s women doing it.”
I couldn’t agree more. It was childcare that I made my maiden speech on in the Assembly in 2015, when I was proposing a motion to up it to a minimum of 20 free hours as a way of allowing parents and carers to do at least a half day’s work. There’s nothing better or more worthwhile that we can invest in than childcare and we are falling behind. A lot of women I know are barely breaking even by going out to work once they have paid for childcare, but they do so in order to ensure that eventually they have a career to return to. It’s also, in policy terms, a leveller in terms of inequality in education as all the statistics show that by a time a child is in P1 their education futures are quiet starkly mapped out and some of those developmental gaps have already emerged based on the stimulus they did or didn’t get in those early years. We know that those first 1,000 days are so fundamental for brain development, so it’s also about making early years’ provision high quality. A child in full time childcare will spend 10,000 hours there so we need to make it of a high standard. The good news is that finally there is a little bit of consensus among the political parties that there should be action. The bad news is that it’s not as simple as it looks. I chair an all-party group with Chris Lyttle from the Alliance and we’ve been doing evidence sessions for the last few months with Department for Education, Department of the Economy, Early Years professionals, childcare providers with the women’s sector to try and find out what will work. I used to look across the water and say, “If the Tories are doing better for working families than we are, then we’re doing something wrong”, but it isn’t necessarily working and childcare providers in England are saying that the funding levels aren’t adequate to provide high quality and meaningful childcare i.e. children are being looked after, but that’s all. The first hurdle is major investment – we need to accept the fact that it’s going to cost maybe £100 million instead of the £25 million that we thought to extend care to a 9am to 1pm session for 3 to 4-year-olds. It’s going to cost more than that to allow the providers to scale up (who are basically saying it’s not worth their while what they are getting) accept that investment, realise that it has a load of public policy goals and get all the parties to sign up to it. So, in the first instance, for me, it would be increasing making that statutory minimum around Northern Ireland, not just 2.5 hours but at least a 9am to 1pm session so that parents can go out and do something meaningful within that time. At the same time, we need to make a full day’s childcare more affordable, allow the providers to reduce what they are having to charge parents. There also needs to be a big investment in skills for childcare workers. We are asking for increasing levels of qualifications from people, degrees and high levels of NVQS for what is effectively a minimum wage job. We’re not valuing childcare and I think the reason for that is because in the majority it’s women doing it.
“It’s a disgrace of an inequality.”
This issue is something that I have been in talks internally and in different forums that I want to see addressed. It’s a disgrace of an inequality and what I mean by that, is that women are predominantly discriminated against because most parents who have to stay at home because of the inability to access free childcare, or the appropriate level of free childcare are women, and that’s just not acceptable in 2019. I’m passionate about mental health and I know that social interaction, not just for children but for parents – male or female – is absolutely crucial in combatting those unintended consequences of the draconian positions that we have in Northern Ireland on the inadequacy of free childcare. We have an ageing population, people are living longer however one of the negative payoffs of that is we don’t have enough people who are upwardly mobile and aspiring to contribute to, not only the fiscal economy but also the social economy. There are unintended benefits to society from children availing of free childcare e.g. mixing with other children and other adults, socially and emotionally that is a benefit so we would absolutely be supportive of parity with the rest of the UK and not only that, we would be looking at trying to explore and value those unintended consequences. If you’ve going to measure pounds spent against a return, increasing the amount of free childcare has to be across many levels and not just fiscally, but better for mental health, better for physical health and better for social relationships. For me and the UUP it’s absolutely crucial in any devolved institution, or if there’s no devolved institution, that at Westminster we could bring about something that delivers such huge societal and fiscal benefits.
“If we want to talk about universal free childcare we need to make sure that we can actually implement it.”
When we did have an Assembly that was up and running the First Minister’s and Deputy First Minister’s Office were absolutely horrific when it came to actually rolling out a childcare strategy and the childcare vouchers that were available, they simply didn’t implement them correctly. If we did have a return to an Assembly, Chris Lyttle, our East Belfast MLA has done a lot of work when it comes to a childcare strategy that he wants to see implemented, including an enhanced child care voucher scheme with the possibility of any scoping mechanisms for free childcare. If we want to talk about universal free childcare we need to make sure that we can actually implement it. Childcare is so expensive and affording it makes life very difficult for working parents. When Stephen Farry was Employment and Learning Minister he recognised that when women return to the workplace, after taking time out to raise children, that their peers will have jumped ahead of them and he looked at ways that they could upskill quickly. We need more mechanisms like that and to encourage shared parental leave (which Stephen Farry introduced) and we need to highlight it more. Not every workplace encourages their employees to take it up and I think it should be compulsory. We should allow for paternity as well as maternity leave.
Q) One of the biggest barriers to balancing work and home life is flexible working. With so many SMEs in NI, a large percentage of the workforce still do not have access to flexible working so how would you encourage companies to realise the benefits of becoming parent friendly and offer flexible working hours, increased maternity and paternity pay and benefits over and above what is legally required of them?
“Progressive companies know how worthwhile it is, they realise that if they can facilitate people having a work and family life balance that they will attract the best talent.”
I agree it isn’t as simple as saying that there is a legal requirement to at least facilitate the request etc. as some businesses just don’t feel that it’s going to be financially viable for them to offer flexible working. For some I think it’s a case of ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ but the more women and working parents are in decision making roles, will hopefully help a cultural shift and people will see that it is perfectly possible to manage caring responsibilities and run a successful business and facilitate the people coming up behind them. It’s important to have the legal protection so that employees know that the possibility has to be explored, but too often it’s only in the case making, e.g. when an employer sees that someone going down to a four-day week doesn’t have an impact on the business. We need to ensure that parents are visible as decision makers in businesses, and in politics, and promote the fact that it is possible. In my own working life, before politics and since, you find working parents are absolutely the most efficient people that you have because they know that the time really counts. What we can’t have though is employees reducing their hours, but still expected to perform the same role with no reduction of tasks, as that’s only a cost reduction benefit to the employer and essentially a pay cut for the employee. It is a culture shift but progressive companies know how worthwhile it is, they realise that if they can facilitate people having a work and family life balance that they will attract the best talent. We also need to build the kind of economy so we get more of those jobs in Northern Ireland.
“I think we need to measure more than just the fiscal outcomes and let’s start looking at wellbeing, mental and physical health.”
I think in Northern Ireland we can be accused of being very traditional, whether that’s in a political sense or our social values and that can carry through in our economic stance. I know through my past experience in the fire service, as far back as 2006, and they were looking at family-friendly shifts and how you address emergency response with risk management planning and what is the best way of delivering it with a happy, content workforce who are possibly mobilised better and will give a better, more efficient, return. I think it’s about encouraging SMEs to be agile and look at solutions that involve people, perhaps artificial intelligence and more modern ways of working, whether that’s working mobile or around the facilitation around family friendly shifts. As I mentioned previously, I experienced in the fire service that they wanted to balance family-friendly shifts with emergency fire cover and look at the strategic need – and it worked. Due to financial constraints, they had to cut back, but I think we need to measure more than just the fiscal outcomes and let’s start looking at wellbeing, mental and physical health, let’s value those as a return and in the long term that will be beneficial.
“Schools here mostly start at 8.50am or 9am, yet that’s the same time the majority of the workforce is expected to start – it’s not compatible and something has to give.”
There are so many companies who just look at productivity as the key and what the output is but there are so many reports and research that has been carried out across the world that shows the happier the employee, the higher your productivity. So rather than SMEs here in Northern Ireland saying, no we can’t do that, what the Alliance want to seek to do is find ways so that you can say yes we can do it, whether that is compulsory changes or it’s enabling incentives to the workforce to get them to do it. We don’t want to penalise the worker, but instead encourage the employer to get those kind of things across the board. There should not be any reason for companies to say that flexible working is not available. Schools here mostly start at 8.50am or 9am, yet that’s the same time the majority of the workforce is expected to start – it’s not compatible and something has to give. We would also be looking at making breakfast clubs available across all schools and free entitlement for all. That might not seem like a big thing but all these little steps will help. Universal free childcare with properly trained staff, well run facilities and the fair payment of staff is the way forward and needs to be taken into consideration if we want a happier workforce. It’s really sad when you think about it, that you have a child and get to spend maybe nine months with your baby and have to leave your child for five days a week and only see them at bedtime.
Q) Scotland has become the first country in the UK to ban smacking and Wales will soon follow. Northern Ireland always seems to be the last place in the UK and Ireland to put these sort of initiatives in place to protect our children’s rights. At a recent event hosted by the NI Children’s Commissioner on Universal Children’s Day, representatives from five of the political parties here pledged to be champions for incorporating United Nations Convention Rights of the Child into NI law. So, what exactly is your commitment to our children?
“When the Assembly is working, we’re only doing the ‘essentials’ and not the progressive, forward thinking legislation roles. That’s why the kind of legislation that you’ve outlined falls behind.”
Our political culture is slow and too often we’re so busy poking each other in the eye that we don’t do the basics very well. If you look at the last 20 years of devolution it’s been off as much as on, so when the Assembly is working, we’re only doing the ‘essentials’ and not the progressive, forward thinking legislation roles. That’s why the kind of legislation that you’ve outlined falls behind. We have a violent culture here, a belief that that’s how you ‘get things done’. We also have a society with high levels of trauma and adverse childhood experiences passing on from generation to generation, we know that is a really big problem here. Whether it was ‘Troubles’ related trauma, perhaps children growing up in a household that had mental ill health, or substance issues as a result of that trauma and it’s essential that we break that cycle so that we don’t carry on that legacy forever. Legislation on its own doesn’t change behaviour, culture eats strategy for breakfast, but if it is illegal and not brushed aside as part of parenting, it enables health visitors, and those people doing interventions with families in the early formative months and years of their parenting journey, to be very, very clear that it is illegal – not just unadvisable. I would certainly commit to this and crucially I would commit to having a political and operational culture which means we are keeping up with other jurisdictions and not always chasing our tail.
“Would I for one second ever think it was appropriate to physically chastise one of the children that I foster? The answer is absolutely not!”
I have been lobbied relentlessly on this issue by organisations like the NSPCC since I started in politics and we’ve had some really gritty conversations about it and it’s a conversation that absolutely needs to be had. Whilst we don’t currently have a policy on it at the moment, it’s something that I would be looking to develop going forward and yes, I would support a ban on smacking. I’m 47 and I have three children and everyone says, “Oh I was smacked as a child and it didn’t harm me.” But this is the game changer for me. My wife and I have fostered children for over 10 years now and this was the reality and wake-up for me. I transposed my values between my children, my paternal children, and the kids I foster. Would I for one second ever think it was appropriate to physically chastise one of the children that I foster? The answer is absolutely not! So, I have to then think what makes it right to then use that force on my own children? It’s an absolute hypocrisy. In society we can listen to, and understand the other side of the argument, I had my bum smacked as a child and my hands caned in school and as I parent, I might have acted out of frustration myself but it’s wrong. I will be firm on parental responsibility on bringing up children who have values and manners, but that should already be in the fabric of our society. There’s a real re-boot that needs to happen and some of the work going on for years now by organisations who work with parents such as Sure Start, and in Lisburn we have a wonderful organisation called Atlas, let’s look to the non-statutory bodies to help us deliver and influence our society to make sure Northern Ireland not only values our children, but promotes and educates them in many ways that aren’t just academic, but gives them a value system and structure which brings real benefit to Northern Ireland and builds a really good legacy.
“There are so many important issues that are forgotten about and will continue to be forgotten about until we have an Assembly to deal with them.”
When I was Lord Mayor of Belfast one of the things I did was to really incorporate family life into that, so that I could highlight what it was really like to be a working parent and have a family in Belfast. One of the aspects of that was travelling around schools, and primary schools in particular, and I could see primary schools here are implementing the charter within their schools. It was fantastic to see the pupils talking about what the UNCRC was and what the rights were. The children knew them and were able to recite them off by heart and talk about them each week, and what they meant to them. If we could instil this within education here that would be amazing. With regard to the smacking ban, I personally don’t do it, I can understand why some people may think that it’s a way to discipline but I think that we need a massive change in society to get people to accept it. If we had an Assembly up and running I do think it would move much quicker than it would in Westminster, but we don’t and people are, rightly, focused on priority issues such as the healthcare crisis. There are so many important issues that are forgotten about and will continue to be forgotten about until we have an Assembly to deal with them. The Children’s Bill that was passed by Steven Agnew from the Green Party a few years ago could be enhanced. I think it would also take a lot of engagement from organisations like Parenting NI who do a lot of work with parents to talk about alternative methods of discipline.
Q) We constantly hear that there is not enough in the education budget and schools are relying on parents’ support more than ever for basic necessities such as books. It is a fact that we have empty desks in schools (60,000) and that we spend more than we need to because we have two separate education systems and numerous teacher training colleges. Do you support integrated education and what will you pledge to do to encourage a move towards fully integrating our schools and saving much-needed money from the education budget?
“All the polling shows that fundamentally people do want integrated but they also want their school to be within walking distance, have after-school clubs and have academic excellence.”
I represent South Belfast where the trend is in the opposite direction and there are no empty desks and the pressure is on places. My policies and the fixes I have tried to offer are based on that, we’re talking about extending school places and the creation of new schools. I do support integrated education you meet people where they are. All the polling shows that fundamentally people do want integrated but they also want their school to be within walking distance, have after-school clubs and have academic excellence. On my own parenting journey it never occurred to me that I would want anything other than the integrated option, but when you are two working parents we realised the school at the top of our street was the right one for us, which initially was a controlled school, then we moved and it’s now a Catholic school, so I don’t think we should look down on people for picking the excellent school which is closest to them and works with their life. For the time being some of the sharing initiatives are excellent and are adding value to education, but where there is space for the creation of new builds and new schools, such as in my constituency in Castlereagh South, it’s entirely logical that those schools should be integrated and match the diversity of an area. We also need to realise though that integrated schools aren’t a magic bullet on their own if we aren’t integrating neighbourhoods. It’s very difficult to have an integrated school in a town or village where everyone is one particular community background. Parents are allowed to put their children’s best interests first and want their child to have the best possible education so we need to ensure that all our schools are academically excellent so there is no disparity when people are making their choice.
“If we can get into a single shared education board we can save on the education budget and we do need to address the discrimination within the barriers to teaching across all schools.”
The UUP have consistently been on a shared education platform. I’m from Lisburn and went to Lisnagarvey High School, my sisters went to Forthill and Wallace Grammar School and Friends’ Grammar School and all of those schools are already shared education, people are not educated based on their religion and it’s an absolute open door to anyone. The same is not true of CCMS unfortunately, I’m not saying that all CCMS are closed door, but there are barriers to proper shared education. If we can get into a single shared education board we can save on the education budget and we do need to address the discrimination within the barriers to teaching across all schools. There is a level playing field that can be achieved, however it would be neglectful not to look at what is already happening and actually roll it out further. We definitely need a single education system but we prefer the shared education model. The reason is that no one should be trying to dilute the right to choose or identity but this can be captured in a single education system under shared education. We also need to address what we value as educational achievement as we are absolutely focused on academic achievement so someone like myself, who wasn’t academic, is already valued less. We have schools who are so focused on AQE, GCSE, A-Levels and University excellence we need more to show there are different avenues to choose. Some of us are great at the arts, some in music, some with their hands, or at sports. We have a real shortage of young people going into apprenticeships and vocational studies and our education system has a role to play in that. Sixty thousand empty desks is unforgivable, and I see the absolute reliance and need on parents and PTAs for everything from books to painting walls. I also want to see, not teachers being responsible for this, but a real effort for initiatives in wellbeing and building up resilience of our young people in schools starting at primary school stages. I also believe we should involve charities and other groups to take the pressure off teaching staff and free them up to actually teach.
“We need to do more than just encourage, we need to make sure that we promote it and we have targets that we have to work to and outline the benefits to schools to becoming integrated.”
The Good Friday Agreement was very careful in its wording about what we had to do for integrated education. We need to do more than just encourage, we need to make sure that we promote it and we have targets that we have to work to and outline the benefits to schools to becoming integrated. I agree with everything you have said in the question and Alliance have consistently talked about integrated education and how it needs to be the way forward. When the last economic report was done it showed that the cost of division was £750 million and education obviously comes into that. I’m one of eight children and I have two siblings and two in-laws who are teachers and they tell me every day, every week, what they are asking of parents. One is bringing in food for his pupils and it’s completely wrong. There needs to be a complete structural change. Shared education is a cop out.
Q) The BBC reported last month that Northern Ireland has the longest hospital waiting lists in the UK – one figure they quoted was that a child can wait up to four years to see an allergy specialist, we have little to no perinatal mental health care and families are also waiting years for referrals for children with autism. What in your opinion has gone so wrong and given the opportunity what would you do about it?
“We need to change the culture that you have to get the statement and the diagnosis before you get the support.”
The BBC have done some great reporting in terms of benchmarking our waiting lists across all aspects of the health service with comparable regions across the water and we are failing at every level. Some of it is the lack of governance, no one driving the ship in terms of ministerial intervention. Some of it is the double running, the fact that we’re running an antiquated system while at the same time trying to reform and provide and I suppose also the geographical issues as well. For allergies and SEN in particular, we know that early intervention is absolutely critical, I know of children who are not able to take up their places at primary school or nursery because they haven’t had a full assessment of their allergies and therefore the school or nursery are uncomfortable taking them until they know what they are dealing with and the delay to that child’s education at that point in time is just not acceptable. In SEN the children may be atrophying in their existing placement and we know it’s driving resource away from other children, but of course until the statement arrives then there is no extra resource. Because of the prevalence of special educational needs there will always be a need for more resource in the classroom and we need to change the culture that you have to get the statement and the diagnosis before you get the support. At the teacher training stage everyone should get the basics in terms of special education support in diagnosis, and spotting the signs, and also for intervention for children in mainstream schools pre-statement or because that is the right setting for them.
“For me working in politics, I feel that I can see the fire, but my hands are tied. We absolutely can do something about this but it’s going to require mature politicians making mature decisions.”
No one party or person has the silver bullet to fix this, however I believe that we have consistently pushed what is the best fix and that is to move health out of politics. The Executive and the Assembly should have the courage to say spending profiles to address the inequalities and chronic waiting lists in Northern Ireland is to move to spending profiles anywhere between three and five years, absolute minimum. We cannot do transformation on one year budgets on an executive experiment like we had with Sinn Féin and DUP where nobody trusts anybody and it is silo mentality because health transcends every department. I’m on the all-party group of autism and ADHD (I’m the Chair of that group) and I see the impact that it has on mental health, we’ve got the venerable communities like learning disabilities and physical disabilities and I’m passionate about helping those groups. Could we bring change? Absolutely. Because it’s a fact that we have some of the best healthcare professionals in the world. To use a fire service analogy, in an emergency you had standards that you had to apply which is response time, time at the incident and how you responded. For me working in politics, I feel that I can see the fire, but my hands are tied. We absolutely can do something about this but it’s going to require mature politicians making mature decisions. People’s health and that journey needs to be collaborative and it needs to be done with the experts, not just telling them. That’s what could have happened with the Bengoa report, but it simply wasn’t important enough for two of our bigger parties.
“Where it went wrong is that we didn’t listen to the experts. Money was fired over the patches and that’s why we are here now, and with a nursing crisis.”
What’s gone wrong is that when we did have an Assembly and the Department of Health was occupied by the DUP or Sinn Féin they didn’t actually make any changes. They knew before the Assembly collapsed that we were in crisis mode with Health, there was a review of the healthcare system in Northern Ireland, I’m not talking about simply closing hospitals but a complete review of what we have and what we offer people, and are we up to the standard of excellence – because it should be – but where it went wrong is that we didn’t listen to the experts. Money was fired over the patches and that’s why we are here now and with a nursing crisis. The removal of nursing grants was a mistake, it’s already difficult enough to take up nursing, it’s not like most roles in university. You’re straight into the workplace with 12-hour shifts and you can’t really change to any other employment. What incentive is that for people to take it up? Given the opportunity we would listen to the experts when it comes to implementing the recommended changes of the Bengoa review in line with the needs of the workers.
NB: The Green Party, DUP and Sinn Féin candidates were also invited to take part in this interview. The Green Party declined and there was no response to our request from the DUP or Sinn Féin.
Email Nadia Editor@ni4kids.com
Robbie Butler image courtesy of Press Eye.