Employers and Work-life Balance
Getting it right for fathers and mothers
The new Parental Rights Bill is designed to help families to choose how to balance earning and caring. As well as extending paid maternity leave from the current six months to nine, then 12, there is also a measure allowing mothers to transfer some of that leave to the father.
At first sight, this seems an excellent idea. The intention is to recognise the desire of fathers to play a greater role in their child’s early years and help to keep skilled women in the workforce. Nevertheless, we urge the Government to rethink these proposals. We fear that, despite their best intentions, the measures will create a system that, in fact, does little to support fathers in sharing child-rearing with mothers. Worse still, if the flaws are not corrected, it may be extremely difficult to unpick the mistakes at a later date.
The danger lies in the idea of “transferable” maternity leave, which is flawed both in principle and practice. Transferable maternity leave threatens to reinforce that outdated stereotype of parenthood, because the leave belongs to the mother. Instead of creating a system of “transferable maternity leave”, why not create one where the leave belongs to the new family (“shared parental leave”) and the parents can make the choice themselves as to who takes it?
There are two further problems with transferable maternity leave. First, the financial barrier. The present maximum of £106 a week is just one fifth of male average earnings. So, for most families, given the financial responsibilities of fathers, transferring leave will not be a real option. Secondly, because four out of ten women are not in paid employment before the birth of their child, a substantial minority will have no leave to transfer in the first place. So, once more, large numbers of families will gain little genuine choice as to who looks after young children.
As we worry about engendering “respect” in young people, we should also base reforms on our knowledge that early father-involvement sets the scene for involved fathering in the longer-term. The outcomes of very high levels of involved fathering are well-documented — and include higher educational achievement, better mental health and lower crime rates among young people.
So, to support fathers’ involvement with their new children, the Government could start by increasing paternity leave to four weeks and pay it at 90 per cent of salary – and allow this leave to be taken at any time during the first year. This would allow us to move from the current situation in which thousands of new dads use up their annual leave after the birth of their children because fewer than one in five can afford to take statutory paid paternity leave — just £106 a week.
Crucially, where leave after the first six months is concerned, the Government should make this truly shared. The leave should belong equally to both parents — “shared parental leave”. The couple could then choose how they work and how the caring is done in a way that suits their family income, their caring needs and their employers. Then, no one could accuse the Government of “nannying” parents, of trying to interfere unnecessarily in choices that rightly lie with a mother and father.
This solution was adopted by Sweden in 1974, allowing mothers or fathers to take significant time off work to care for their child. Britain has been the odd one out in Europe in pursuing a policy of extending maternity leave instead of extending parental leave, which offers so much more flexibility and choice to families.
There are also real concerns that, if the Government does not rethink its strategy, it will back itself and future governments into a corner on this issue. The problem is the European Union’s pregnant workers’ directive, which applies to Britain. It appears to make it difficult to alter maternity-leave rights once they are introduced. So, once paid maternity leave is extended to nine and then 12 months, it might be difficult to switch over to a system of “shared parental leave”.
Finally, money is vital. Let’s ensure that there is enough to give each parent real choice. That means increasing not only paternity pay, but also maternity and shared parental pay immediately and signalling moves towards an earnings-related system.
The Government should not miss a vital opportunity to revise proposals whose flaws are obvious not only to us, but to the Equal Opportunities Commission and many organizations in the family sector.
© Work-Life balance part of The Work Foundation 2005