Paternity leave proposals: ”Don’t go far enough”

Nick Clegg’s plans for paternity leave don’t go far enough, warn two experts in social policy.  Here, they tell what needs to be done to make the proposed legislation much more effective for new dads.

Nick Clegg’s plans for paternity leave don’t go far enough, warn two experts in social policy.  Here, they tell what needs to be done to make the proposed legislation much more effective for new dads.

The proposals outlined by the Coalition Government
Last month Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced a consultation exercise in a bid to reform paternity leave in 2015 – the plan is to allow parents to divide the 52 weeks maternity leave between them after the first two months which would be taken by the mother.  Parents would be able to divide the leave however they wished including taking leave together.  The aim is to allow fathers to play a larger role in childcare when their children are very young, to reduce the burden of childcare on women, allow women to return to work sooner and to help children to develop stronger bonds with their fathers.
Paternity leave was introduced in Britain in 2005 as a statutory right for fathers.  Currently, new dads are entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave as long as it is taken within 56 days of the birth of the child.  Statutory paternity pay is £124.88 a week (£128.73 from April) or 90% of average earnings if lower.  But from April 2011 fathers can take any maternity leave (52 weeks in total) not taken by the mother including receiving the balance of statutory maternity pay due if the mother returns to work after 20 weeks.

‘’Use it or lose it’’ – key to further progress
The best way to ensure paternity leave fulfils the aim of helping a new dad bond with his baby is to bring in a law to reserve a period of more than two weeks just for fathers on a basis of take it or lose it, claim Prof Claire Wallace and Professor Pamela Abbott in their newly published paper, Flexible Working or Flexible Fathers.  They also think fathers should not be able to take paternity leave at the same time as mothers are on maternity leave – this goes against Clegg’s proposals.  The report states: ‘’The announcement is strangely silent on how parents and especially fathers are going to be able to afford to take time off work.  This is of concern because we know that the majority of mothers do not take their full entitlement to maternity leave for financial reasons.’’
Children benefit massively if their dads are more involved in their upbringing.  ‘’It is evident that paternity leave can enable fathers to take a more active role in caring for young children and that fathers who take paternity leave continue to be more involved in childcare than fathers who do not,’’ says Professor Wallace, professor of sociology at Aberdeen University and UK leader for the Workcare Synergies project.  ‘’Fathers’ involvement in childcare has a positive impact on the cognitive and emotional development of children.’’
But if dads are to be able to take up the chance of more paternity leave and make the new plans successful, financial needs have to be revamped too, says Prof Wallace.   She is calling for men to receive at least 50% of their earnings to make the scheme worthwhile. Three quarters of women in the UK return to work within 18 months for financial reasons.  ‘’I don’t know if this paternity leave is going to achieve (its aims) because it is not really compensating men for the loss of earnings if they stop work and spend more time with their children,’’ she said. 
Studies in other European countries have shown fathers are more likely to take paternity leave if it is non-transferable and is well compensated – at least 50% of usual earnings.  The same research also shows that fathers who work shorter hours are more likely to be involved in childcare than those who work longer hours. However, fathers tend to work longer hours than non-fathers.  Dads who take more than two weeks leave become more involved and stay more involved in infant and childcare when they return to work than other fathers.
The Government needs to enforce shorter working hours to stop a long hours culture among fathers and enable them to participate in family, says the report.  In France a 35-hour week is enforced. 

What about unbalanced sharing of work?
The Government’s plan does not address the issue of the unequal domestic burden on women, warns the report, because ‘’it leaves untouched the main barriers to a sharing of work and care’’.
Previous research has shown that when men do take time off to carry out childcare, that is mainly all they stick to doing – they tend not to do housework.  ‘’Although men are taking on more responsibility for childcare, they contribute little to domestic work even when their wives are in paid employment and they have young children,’’ says Professor Wallace.  ‘’The higher earnings potential of men, employer attitudes and general social attitudes all combine to discourage men taking on caring and domestic roles.  The consequences are that mothers take on the main burden of care and domestic work and lose out in terms of employment and career prospects.  Even mothers in professional and managerial jobs pay a penalty for motherhood – one that fathers do not pay.’’


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