Government urged to offer fathers more flexibility
A unique alliance of organisations representing women’s equality and supporters of active fatherhood today urge the Government to tackle Britain’s childcare crisis by offering fathers greater work flexibility.
The call from the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fawcett Society and Fathers Direct comes as Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, speaks today at a major conference on childcare policy(1).
The three organisations today publish Men and women: who looks after the children? Their report outlines how improved opportunities for women at work require greater opportunities for fathers to take up caring responsibilities at home.
In a joint statement, the three organisations conclude:
"There is a crisis in childcare in terms of availability and affordability. The result is that many women are unable to return to work, so that families lose out on income and women’s career prospects are damaged. Yet the debate has largely failed to consider how, with greater flexibility at work, fathers could do more childcare, enlarging their own lives and offering women greater opportunities in the work place.
"The Government’s Childcare Strategy(2) states that it will encourage childcare taking place within families, but fails to offer ways to achieve this. Greater work flexibility for fathers would be a key contribution. Sharing childcare and work between men and women is, after all, already the choice many families prefer. We know, for example, that in dual earner families, the individual most likely to be caring for children while mum is at work is not a neighbour, relative or childminder, but dad(3). However, this option is closed to many families where employers still expect fathers to work as though they are childless or as though there is a woman at home available to look after the children."
Today’s report follows three seminars co-hosted by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fawcett Society and Fathers Direct, held at the House of Commons during the summer and attended by experts, policy-makers and academics.
The report welcomes the legal requirement from April 2003 that employers must give serious consideration to requests for flexible working from the parents of young children. The report recommends a vigorous campaign to promote flexible working to fathers as well as mothers. These policies may give some fathers the chance to share care more with their partners, giving women more work options.
Among other long-term recommendations in the report is a call on the Government to create leave entitlements after the birth of a baby that would allow a father to take extended time out to care for the baby without risking his job security. One option put forward would be for dads to be able to take extended time off after the baby is three months old if that is what the parents decided was best for their family. It’s important that both parents have individual leave entitlements after the birth of their child.
Under the Government’s new leave entitlements that come into operation in April 2003, fathers will be entitled to two weeks paternity leave at £100 per week. But a mother’s extended right to up to 52 weeks off work (which is half paid and half unpaid) after the birth of a baby cannot be shared with the father of the child. The maximum period that a father could take off in the first year is four weeks unpaid parental leave (taken in a minimum of one week blocks) plus two weeks paid paternity leave. It would be helpful to let fathers use their albeit limited leave more flexibly. For example, some might like to spread it by taking a day off every week or so over an extended period. The inflexibility over how much leave fathers can take and the way that they can take it means that many women who want to return to work within a year have to place their babies in child care or else stay at home when they and their partners might like the option of the child being cared for by the father.
The report also calls on the Government to commission an audit of public services covering areas such as education, health and social welfare. The aim would be to determine whether these services reinforce patterns of childcare that place the onus of caring on women and thereby limit opportunities at home and at work for women and men.
Notes to editors:
The series of seminars leading to today’s report were co-hosted by the EOC, the Fawcett Society and Fathers Direct.
The following 10-point action plan was suggested in the three seminars to encourage men and women to share childcare responsibilities.
1 Campaign to promote work flexibility for men as well as women in the workplace. Challenge workplace culture that equates involvement in family life with failure at work. Generate messages about the opportunities for fathers to spend more time with their children and the benefits to their children in terms of educational and behavioural outcomes.
2 Campaign to close the pay gap and reduce economic constraints on families when deciding how to organise work and childcare.
3 Promote to children in schools the possibilities for future sharing of work and childcare between men and women.
4 Give a voice to children in the debate about how families should organise work and childcare.
5 Create family services, maternity services and services tackling social exclusion that recognise and support the role of fathers and other male carers in caring for children. Audit current services to determine if/how they reinforce patterns of childcare that limit opportunities for women and men.
6 Support the involvement of non-resident parents in caring for their children, particularly within families living in disadvantage.
7 Create new programmes to support the relationships of parents within the criminal justice system and their children, as part of resettlement work and strategies to reduce re-offending.
8 Campaign to promote new leave entitlements for fathers as a new opportunity for participation in the lives of their children. Monitor uptake and respond accordingly.
9 Create leave entitlements after the birth of a baby that provide the possibility for a father to take over care of the baby after the first three months of the baby’s life without risking his job security, if that is what the parents decide is best for their family.
10 Link measures to promote work flexibility, particularly as they relate to men, into childcare strategies, in order to increase opportunities for childcare to be managed within the family.
(1) – Patricia Hewitt addresses the Day Care Trust national conference, Childcare’s Changing Britain, in London today, Wednesday 13 November.
(2) – Meeting the Childcare Challenge, DfEE, DSS, 1998
(3) – The National Child Development Study found that men are the main carers of children in 36 per cent of dual-earner families while mothers are working – more than any other individual.