FI briefing: Flexibility is key – our evidence to the Government’s parental leave consultation

3 August 2011

In our evidence to the Government’s ‘Modern Workplaces’ consultation on proposals for a new parental leave system, we argue that the current system costs the UK economy billions of pounds a year in wasted talent; puts pressure on relationships and undermines families; leads to poor outcomes for children and young people; underpins our gaping gender pay gap and perpetuates inequalities between men and women in the work place and in wider society.

We outline a wide range of international evidence showing why shared parenting:

• Is good for children

• Is good for mothers, emotionally and professionally

• Is good for fathers

• Improves relationship satisfaction and stability

• Is good for business.

The FI submission suggests a set of principles through which the Government could promote a culture of shared parenting, a key one of which is, as it is trying, to create a system of maternity, paternity and parental leave which incentivises the sharing of care and breadwinning roles and other changes. Others include fathers being required to register their paternity on the birth register, and being held to account for their children’s criminal activity to the same degree as mothers.

In terms of the parental leave proposals specifically, we suggest the following:

  • replacement of the terms ‘maternity leave’ and ‘paternity leave’ with ‘parental leave’, with 18 weeks reserved for mothers and 6 weeks reserved for fathers
  • that parental leave and pay should be available to mothers and fathers on an equal basis, and that any leave other than maternity leave should be equally available to mothers and fathers
  • that if couples cannot agree on how their leave should be shared, there should be a default position where half the non reserved leave is available to each parent. Where parents fail to agree, each one of them would be entitled to half of the total of available shareable leave.
  • that flexibility is a key element of the proposals – allowing parents to decide for themselves how they use the leave which is available. For some couples, shared parenting will be facilitated by ‘learning together’. For others, the father’s presence may be vital where the mother is seriously ill after the birth, or is or becomes depressed. Where the mother is at risk of depression, the father’s ongoing support at home may be an important buffer against the slide into depression.
  • that the ability to take leave on a part time basis is going to be very important to those families who want to share their responsibilities but cannot afford to take time off as a block and lose all of their earning at once. In the absence of high levels of salary replacement, the ability to use the leave flexibly is vitally important. The peak risk times for postnatal depression for both women and men is 3-6 months after the birth. It is possible that at this point the mother’s part-time engagement with the labour market may prove a buffer; and men who feel excluded from the care of their child, and isolated (as is common when mothers become very much primary caretakers) will build close and satisfying relationships with their infants through caring for them alone – while still remaining engaged with the labour market. These provisions will also be helpful to businesses who will find it easier to cope with an employee working part time rather than disappearing altogether.

Non-resident fathers

We argue that in situations where the parents are not living together, non-resident fathers (it usually is the father who does not live with the baby) should be entitled to exclusive leave available to resident fathers and to share in the parental leave. This would encourage them to develop a supportive relationship to the mother of their child and the child itself. Any default position in favour of the resident parent having all the leave would create unnecessary barriers to the development of an effective parenting relationship between the child and the non-resident parent.

Although it would be very unhelpful to allow any business of any size to gain exemptions from these proposals, we suggest that as small businesses will have proportionally higher costs in absorbing the legislation, supporting members of staff who take leave, and covering for their absence, there is a case for financial support and employment advice in this area.

Reserved leave for dads

The reserving of four weeks of parental leave for the father is, we believe, the single most important aspect of the proposals. This is the change most likely to produce in increase in the numbers of men taking leave, and women being able to go back to work earlier. Reserved leave does have an impact of numbers of men taking leave, independently of whether the leave is paid at close to salary or not. However, because this leave is paid at a relatively low level, we should not reserve more than four weeks for the father since, in households who cannot afford for the father to lose any of his salary, this would create an unhelpful restriction in the amount of leave available to the family as a whole. If, in future years, we can move towards salary replacement for the fathers portion of leave, it would be beneficial to increase the amount of leave available to the father on a reserved basis.

We also argue that fathers should be entitled to time off to attend four ante-natal appointments.

Read the FI Response to Modern Workplaces 29 july 2011.

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