June 8, 2010

UK: It's time we gave more help to grandparents, says Sam Smethers

LEEDS, England / Yorkshire Post / Living / Opinion / June 8, 2010

BRITAIN'S grandparents are undervalued and overlooked compared to those in some other European countries. That's the finding of a new study from Grandparents Plus and Kings College London.

Grandparents across Europe play a pivotal role in family life, providing help and support to children and grandchildren and also becoming full-time carers when parents are unable to fulfil that role. But when it comes to supporting and recognising the crucial contribution of grandparents, the UK is lagging behind some of our European neighbours.

In Germany, working grandparents are able to take up to 10 days' paid leave to look after a grandchild in an emergency, or to take unpaid leave for up to six months. And, in Portugal, grandparents can take up to 30 days' leave and receive a financial allowance to care for a sick child, if the parents are unable to because of work commitments.

In Hungary, parental allowance and parental leave can be transferred to a grandparent who is looking after a grandchild in their own home, for example, while the parent is working. And in several counties parents can take leave or receive a financial allowance where the parent is still a teenager and or in education full-time.

At Grandparents Plus, we want to see greater recognition, respect and reward for the contribution grandparents make to family life. One in three working mothers depend on grandparents for child care, and this figure is even higher for single parents.

Grandparents also play an important role at times of family crisis and in families with a disabled child.

Around 200,000 grandparents are raising their grandchildren because parents are no longer able to fulfil that role, for example, because of severe illness or disability, drug or alcohol misuse or death. Yet, at the moment, the enormous contribution that grandparents make is largely overlooked and taken for granted.

We've also asked more than 1,000 of Britain's grandparents for their views. The poll showed overwhelming support for making it possible to pay grandparents for childcare through tax credits and childcare vouchers, with seven out of 10 grandparents backing the idea – at the moment parents can only use tax credits and vouchers to pay for formal childcare.

More than half of grandparents agreed they should be entitled to period of leave when a grandchild is born. And 46 per cent of working grandparents who provide childcare said they would work flexibly if it was an option.

But we recognise that, to coin a phrase, "there is no money left" and families will feel the pain. That means grandparents will continue to take the strain. So we are looking at affordable steps which the Government could take to provide greater support for families juggling work and childcare.

During the recent election campaign, David Cameron said he wants to make the UK the most family friendly society in the world.

The coalition Government has already said that it will consult on extending the right to request flexible working to all and we welcome that. Half of Britain's 14 million grandparents are under the age of 65, so potentially millions of older workers, and younger grandparents in their 40s and 50s, could benefit from flexible working.

But why not go further and give families greater flexibility by allowing parents to transfer some of it to grandparents if they wish? Or give grandparents unpaid "granny leave" around the time of grandchild's birth?

These measures wouldn't be a additional burden on the taxpayer but could make a huge difference to families struggling to balance childcare, work and in some cases caring for older relatives as well.

We also want to see more support for the 200,000 grandparents who are bringing up 300,000 grandchildren full-time, most of whom would otherwise be in care, and saving the state a colossal £12bn a year. Yet these grandparents are often on the breadline, with three out of four suffering financial hardship and one in three living on less than £200 a week. Only around one in 10 get any financial help from social services.

At Grandparents Plus, we run a network for grandparents raising their grandchildren, so we hear at first hand the difficulties these grandparent headed households often experience.

One grandmother spoke on BBC Breakfast yesterday about how she struggled to get adequate housing, living for three and a half years in a two bedroom flat when she took in four of her grandchildren following their mother's death.

We also hear of grandparents with children with disabilities, severe behaviour problems and other special needs desperate for support but getting no help.

Grandparent carers provide a lifeline as local authorities struggle with our creaking care system. But they cannot go on doing it on the cheap.

It's high time we gave more support to the crucial role grandparents play.

•Sam Smethers is chief executive of Grandparents Plus
©2010 Johnston Press Digital Publishing