Parenting leave – how would the FI want it to work?

13 November 2012

Jeremy Davies writes:

Back in July 2012 we wrote a paper called Stick to your guns, urging the Government to pursue the plan it had outlined in its Modern Workplaces consultation. This proposed cutting maternity leave to 18 weeks and creating a new system of flexible parental leave – 4 weeks reserved for mothers, 4 weeks reserved for fathers (available directly to eligible fathers, not ‘given’ by the mother) and 30 weeks available to the mother or father (or both, if both were eligible). We have since floated the idea of shortening maternity leave even further, to just 2 weeks, and making the rest of the leave in the first year flexible parental leave, to be shared between the two parents – with the exception of the ‘reserved’ daddy and mummy months.

Although not perfect – we would of course like a commitment to salary-replacement level pay for as much as possible of the leave – this would have been a forward-thinking system worthy of a Coalition aiming to make the UK the most family-friendly country in Europe.

What the Government has in fact announced may look and sound like flexible parental leave. But it’s not – it’s transferable maternity leave. Which means fathers themselves gain no independent eligibility for more leave beyond their statutory 2 weeks of paternity leave – they are only deemed suitable to receive it if their child’s mother is eligible for maternity leave, and chooses to share it with them*.

Why does this matter? Because we know that equality for women requires fathers to play an equal part in childrearing – indeed one of the key policy outcomes desired by many governments including in the UK (and central to the government’s current proposals) is increased take-up of parenting leave and pay by fathers. We also know that when this is achieved it is usually due to:

• There being a flexible parental leave scheme – leave that is available to either parent, not available only to the mother and then transferable, starting after a short period of maternity leave

• There also being a period period of leave reserved for fathers (often called a ‘daddy month’).

Crucially, when less leave is publicly ‘earmarked’ for mothers, the shift in cultural perceptions should mean that men and women are considered equal in terms of the ability to care for their child, both in fact and in law. This should help women achieve greater parity with men in the workplace.

Evidence from Sweden suggests that a mother’s future earnings increase on average by 7% over a four year period for every month of leave the father takes. Iceland reserves 13 weeks for mothers, 13 weeks for fathers and 13 weeks of joint leave to be used as the family wishes. Ninety-one per cent of Icelandic fathers now take leave, with 83% using all their own reserved leave and 23% also taking some of the joint leave.

In Modern Workplaces the Government outlined a system that could have given families real choices over how to share out their earning and caring responsibilities, and challenged employers to move with the times. In their final response to the consultation, Mr Clegg and colleagues have fallen woefully short.

*The Tavistock Centre for Human Relations examined the likely take-up of transferable maternity leave (which has been available to families since April 2011) and found it to be negligible. Read their report.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,