Don’t blame mothers for low rate of parental leave

Labour Party

It was hardly accurate when yesterday, some of the media suggested that the reason rates of paternity leave were so low in the UK was because women were reluctant to give up their right to it. In fact the statistics revealed that just over half of women (55%) said they didn’t wish to share their leave. The explanation of the statistics is, obviously, far more complex.

The policy of shared parental leave was introduced in April 2015, allowing new parents to share statutory leave and pay following the birth of their child. However, on the first anniversary of the introduction of the policy research, conducted by the Women’s and Business Council and My Family Care, revealed uptake to be significantly lower than expected with just 1% of men using the opportunity to share leave.

One theory as to why men have not used the opportunity is because the policy has been poorly designed. The paternity specialist Tom Beardshaw suggested one explanation was that both parents need an allocation of leave that is dedicated to them and paid at a rate which makes it rational for them to do so. Beardshaw suggests that if both men and women are given “at least three months of properly paid leave each…shared leave makes far more sense, because both parents are engaged in caring responsibilities. That’s what we are still waiting for in the UK.”

I suspect we are some way off of achieving this in the near future, but still there are things we could do to improve the uptake, like improving statutory maternity leave pay. In fact the Members of the European Parliament had worked towards introducing new legislation which would reflect his but following years of negotiation with e Commission it was withdrawn under the REFIT programme.

In the UK, Government figures predicted uptake would be low when it was first introduced. The research suggested that around 285,000 working fathers would be eligible to share leave but it anticipated just 2%-8% would do so. By comparison, in other parts of Europe such as Sweden and Norway approximately nine in 10 fathers take leave, and crucially between 80% and 100% of their earnings are replaced while they are on leave.

In addition cultural attitudes still need to shift significantly which is a major barrier preventing better uptake. The perception that mothers ought to stay at home with their young offspring still rings true for many families in the UK. While many employers are reported to have embraced the model and adopted more flexible work policies they state that the requests just aren’t coming in. The point of the introduction of shared parental leave is that it should allow families to choose what is best for them and it should help mothers to return to work more easily.

In addition to cultural attitudes research suggested that some men were concerned that their career progression may be affected if they took an extended period of leave, while others reported that taking such leave was perceived negatively at work. Less than half (40%) of individuals said shared parental leave was encouraged by their employer, despite more than half of businesses stating they offered enhanced pay (in line with what was offered to those taking maternity leave).

Progressive countries like Sweden, which was the first country in the world to introduce a paid parental leave allowance with no regard to gender, some 40 years ago can be used as a model. Parallels can be drawn with the UK, albeit with a 40 year gap.

When launched in Sweden the scheme involved paying 90% of salary for 180 days per child and allowed parents to divide the leave as they wished. But in its first year only 0.5% of men took parental leave.

Today things are very different some 24.8% of men share leave in Sweden. One clear factor which has improved the rates is that there has been an increase in paid leave from 180-480 days. Financial viability clearly makes a significant difference.

In addition, the introduction of policies such as the so called ‘daddy-month’ was introduced in 1995. Families received an extra month to add to their allowance, if each parent acquired at least one month of leave. By 2002 the policy was expanded to two months instead of one.

Germany has similarly good rates of uptake at 20%. And in other European countries, such as Belgium and Portugal certain aspects of parental leave are reserved exclusively for the father.

Clearly the explanation for the poor uptake of this infant policy is complicated but women can’t be blamed for the low rates of parental leave, it’s understandable that many women don’t wish to give up their leave, but the factors relating to low uptake are far more complicated. It’s incumbent upon the government to build on the parental leave policy and improve rates of uptake.

New Shared Parental Leave Rights Come into Force

Labour Party

Blink and you’ll miss it. That’s how quickly paternity leave passes for most men. The standard one-two weeks leave is hardly enough time to help settle your new baby into a routine, or to get to know him or her. However, new laws extending paternity leave are now in place. It should be great news for new families but, a study found that fast approaching half (42%) of men are against the idea of shared parental leave.

Shared parental leave will mean that parents of all babies born on or after April 5 next year can apply to share maternity leave. Couples can mix the arrangements in whatever way they like for up to 12 months including alternating or overlapping leave.

It may be the case that some men are not able to care for their offspring in those early months in the same way they believe their wives can (if they are breastfeeding for example). It might seem overwhelming to men, but it could be that the mother feels exactly the same way and so sharing the responsibility could remove some of that pressure.

The point is that this sort of arrangement gives flexibility to the new family, it opens up options that would not have been available before now. It means that if women chose to they can start work with reassurance and safe in the knowledge their child is in the comfort of home being cared for by the father.

Of course for many families the traditional arrangement might work better, but having the option to discuss different possibilities surely goes some way to relieving certain pressures for new parents, especially mother, who can make flexible arrangements without the pressure and responsibility for care giving sitting solely with the mother.

Plenary Debate on the Withdrawal of the Maternity Leave Directive

Labour Party

I wrote last week about the Commission’s plan to scrap the maternity leave directive.  This week in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, I spoke in a debate with Commission about their proposal.

Most of the speakers, including myself, are appalled at that the Commission could so meekly give up on this very important directive. It has been clear from the beginning that this issue is difficult and controversial, but that is no reason to abandon it. We have already wasted four years doing nothing. Now the Commission and the council have a chance to correct that in this new mandate.

I hope the listen to the pleas of myself and my colleagues in the European Parliament. You can watch my interjection in the video above and you can watch the whole debate by following the link here.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

A paper by Labour in London this week drew attention to the capital’s childcare crisis. The document revealed that there were 35,000 fewer nursery places since the Conservatives took office, and that childcare costs have increased by 30%. Labour have announced they will increase childcare for 3-4 year-olds from 15 to 25 hours per week, and will increase funding through a levy on banks. This would create an extra 72,000 places in London alone, where the struggle to keep up with costs is beginning to spiral out of control for many parents.

A report last month by the think tank IPPR drew attention to the present childcare crisis. The study showed the inextricable link between maternal employment levels – on which the UK performs worse than many OECD countries – and the poor childcare provisions Britain has to offer. IPPR said childcare of under-fives was essential to bring about better rates of work and pay for women, and that the ideal proportion of a family’s disposable income spent on childcare should be no more than 10%.

With Sure Start nurseries coming under threat from the government during this parliament – not to mention the TUC’s revelation last year that Britain has Europe’s worst maternity provisions – much more needs to be done. The alternative will be another generation of 50-65 year old women stuck in long-term unemployment or forced to deskill to find work.

I’m therefore delighted to see Labour in London spelling out such a clear direction of travel on this issue. The Tories produce a lot of hot air when it comes to getting women in the boardroom or the debating chamber, but to find sustainable solutions to these problems we need to address the systemic factors that drive women out of the workplace during their early thirties.

Also this week, Tory backbencher Robert Halfon made headlines when he referred to some UKIP members as “literally akin to the Nazis”. Halfon, a comparatively moderate Conservative, said Nigel Farage’s party could be split into two tribes: Godfrey Bloom-style buffoons and more “sinister” nationalists in the mould of Gerard Battern. He ironically thanked UKIP for “cleansing” his party of its lunatic fringe.

Halfon’s words draw attention to a sharp conflict within the Conservative Party, between those who want to remain borderline sane, and a larger faction who see the current state of British politics as an opportunity to drag the centre ground ever further to the right. For the latter group the existence of UKIP provides a convenient excuse; a political imperative to propel their party towards bigotry and knee-jerk populism. As I wrote in my round up last week, the end point in this journey is a type of Tea Party fanaticism which blocks all forms of progress.

So far David Cameron has made a host of concessions, essentially allowing the ultras within his party to dictate policy. One can only hope, for the sake both of British national interests and of democracy per se, that senior Conservative figures start to look beyond the ‘path of least resistance’ solutions they currently seem so keen on.

Channel 5 News on Executive Pay for Women

Labour Party

This is the video of my recent appearance on Channel 5 News on how we can secure Equal Pay for women in executive positions. I particularly address the lack of action on maternity leave. It was a pleasure to meet Saira Khan.


Guardian Comment is Free article

Labour Party

Yesterday I wrote a piece for the Guardian Comment is Free on the issue of maternity proposals which we will vote on later today. You can read the article here.

Woman’s Hour interview on Maternity Leave

Labour Party

I spoke this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about the EU’s Maternity Leave Directive which being voted on this week in Strasbourg. You can listen to it again here .

The Directive makes provisions for women to have fully paid maternity leave for 20 weeks, and for fathers to have two weeks paid paternity leave. It also addresses other issues to protect and ensure safety at work for pregnant and breastfeeding workers, including the prohibition of dismissal following the end of maternity leave to six months, and provisions on night work and overtime and adoption leave.

The vote is scheduled for Wednesday. I will be writing more as events unfold through what promises to be an exciting and interesting week.