Gavin Shuker, the Labour MP for Luton South is a member of the Women & Equalities Committee which published a report on dads earlier this year in recognition of the links between equality at home and at work. Shuker will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards in November. He spoke to Workingmums.co.uk about the role of policymakers in promoting greater equality.
Workingmums.co.uk: Many dads we speak to have faced negative attitudes when they ask for flexible working. The legislation on flexible working is due to be reviewed shortly. Will strengthening the legislation make a difference for those employers who are resistant to it?
Gavin Shuker: “There is a huge disconnect between most normal paid jobs and metropolitan professional businesses where flexible working is seen as much more of an asset to market jobs. It is easy to get professional companies who have a high level of flexibility to come before our Committee, but it is much harder, for example, to get a shift-based employer to come in. In most jobs securing flexible working can be a challenge unless the government takes clear action. We recommended a change in the legislation to make it possible to request flexible working from day one in a job [rather than six months in as is the case now]. That puts the onus onto employers to prove that the jobs cannot be done flexibly. There is a review of flexible working legislation next year, but it doesn’t have to conclude until 2021. That could be someone’s entire early childhood. We need to speed things up.”
Workingmums.co.uk: Why do you think uptake of Shared Parental Leave has been so low and what can be done about it? Your Committee recommended an increase in standalone paternity leave to 12 weeks. Why is this important?
GS: “We recommended that employers make it clearer that SPL is available. My feeling is that many people still don’t know about their rights and that employers could do more to make it clearer what they are. What’s more, it is a highly complicated system to transfer a limited asset between two parents and that it is never going to get you the same kind of returns as a clear block of leave for dads or second parents that you lose unless you take it.
“I asked the government minister Margot James what level of take-up was proof that the SPL legislation was working when she came before the committee. She said 20-25%. The current take-up is probably more like 4-5%. It shows how far we have to go culturally, yet the model of caregiving established in that first year after a child is born is baked into a child’s entire life. A lot of dads want to be involved in their kids’ upbringing. We cannot just rely on people making lifestyle changes. There has to be government policy to back it up and give people more choice.
“Seven out of 10 employers consider SPL to be complicated or highly complicated. There are huge institutional reasons why employers don’t want people to take it and for employees the biggest reason for not taking it is the bottom line. People make a judgment based on how they can keep enough money coming in to support their family at a tough financial time.
“In the Committee’s view, SPL should only be a bridge towards the one thing we know makes a difference in terms of parental equality: separate distinct paternity leave. That is why being paid 90% of income [the Committee recommended extended paternity leave be paid at 90 per cent of salary for of the first four weeks – with a cap for higher earners – and at statutory leave for the remaining eight weeks] is very different to being paid the current statutory rate. If both parents were paid 90% of earnings for a limited period with a cap on earnings it would change the debate full stop. The statutory rate flies in the face of what other countries do. These are the crucial years. Those first years are still the biggest single determinant of bonding.
“There will always be a cost to having kids, but policy can bend the arc so childcare is more equally shared by men and women. That is better for the children and for the gender pay gap. It is better for dads as they can be genuine participants in their children’s care and it is better for relationships. The role of public policy is to make it a bit easier for parents to make the choices they know are right for them. Expectations are changing about dads’ roles in childcare.”
WMs: Given the Brexit negotiations are taking up most of Parliament’s time, what do you think can be realistically achieved in the next few years on parental leave?
GS: “Brexit is taking up the whole bandwidth of government. We can keep government to account on the commitments it has already made, for instance, to review Shared Parental Leave, to continue gender pay gap reporting and to change things if mandatory reporting doesn’t close the gap. We will also have to look at different ways other than legislation to keep these issues current. My fear is that a whole generation of children will end up not having the same access to both parents in the meantime.”
WMs: Do you think there is support in government for paternity allowance? The Women & Equalities Committee report says workplace rights for dads who are agency workers or self employed should be harmonised with those for employed fathers, for instance, by introducing paternity allowance along similar lines to maternity allowance for mums. Why does this matter?
GS: “This is one of the areas that is being held up by Brexit. There are likely to be more people who are self employed than work in the public sector in the next decades. Ensuring they have basic rights is one of the biggest challenges for the world of work in the next 20-30 years alongside how to accommodate more flexible working into secure patterns of working.”
WMs: How do you manage life at Westminster with being a dad? (Shuker has a four-year-old daughter and shares the care for her with her mum, from whom he is separated)
GS: “I made a decision when my daughter was born that I would spend one weekday with her and I would go to Westminster in the evening to vote and I am so thankful for that time which helped me to build my relationship with her.”
Shuker adds that he was lucky he could afford to do so and that stepping back from the front bench meant he could do so practically. Now that his daughter is at school, he does the school run on Monday mornings, Thursday afternoons and Fridays and he splits holiday childcare. He says Westminster is not very family friendly and there is still a stigma attached to talking about childcare there. However, by not telling the whips about his every move he has been able to retain a bit of control and flexibility over his hours which makes it more manageable as a parent.
He states: “Before Ruby was born I used to work six evenings a week, but you have to draw the line somewhere when you are a parent. It is hard to do in politics. The Committee’s work is about bending the curve to change the conversation about work more broadly. Parenting is hard enough as it is. Anything we can do to help create a more equal society, a better work life balance for parents and happier kids is important.”