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Bringing up baby: Putting time into paternity leave

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Paternity leave The ideal of contemporary fatherhood is at odds with current legislation, which presents an unequal bias in favour of the mother staying at home. Annie Hayes examines whether proposals to change this imbalance can work.


Rights of working parents

Aspirations are changing and according to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), many fathers want to get more involved in bringing up their children. About one-third of active parental childcare is already carried out by fathers.

A frustration for many working parents is that the legislation that affords mums the majority of the time off – up to 52 weeks’ leave whilst dads get a two-week window – pushes parents into assigning those caring responsibilities early on.

Duncan Fisher, chief executive officer of campaign group the Fatherhood Institute, says: “More couples live together before having children, when they enjoy a period of equality, but as soon as they have children they’re back to the 1950s.”

Mothers currently enjoy 39 weeks statutory maternity pay (SMP) – six weeks at 90% of average weekly wages, then 33 weeks at the statutory level which is currently £117.18 per week or 90% of weekly earnings if lower.

Fathers, on the other hand, are entitled to two weeks’ paid paternity leave – paid at SMP levels although many employers extend this to full pay. Fathers are also entitled to up to 13 weeks’ unpaid parental leave for each child under five. The sticking point here is that it’s not paid, and for this reason is not an economic viability for many dads who feel they have little choice but to stay at work.

Extending paternity leave

To address this imbalance, the government is planning on introducing Additional Paternity Leave (APL) and Additional Statutory Paternity Pay (ASPP).

“More couples live together before having children, when they enjoy a period of equality, but as soon as they have children they’re back to the 1950s.”

Duncan Fisher, the Fatherhood Institute

Rita Mehta and Vanessa Hempstead, solicitors at Thomas Eggar LLP, explain what these extensions mean: “Under the new proposals, due to be implemented in April 2010, fathers (or same sex partners) will be able to take up to 26 weeks’ leave (some of which will be paid) if the mother returns to work after six months, but before the end of her maternity leave period.”

Mehta and Hempstead say that in addition to APL and ASPP, the government is also intending to increase the period of statutory maternity and adoption pay from 39 weeks to 52 weeks by the end of parliament.

The intention of the proposals is to give families more choice, where many would argue there is little, and to enable fathers or partners to be more involved in caring for their child during the first year of the child’s life.

The model of ‘transferring’ leave is also being adopted by the Tories, who have announced plans to introduce a system of ‘flexible parental leave’ allowing parents up to a year off between them following the birth of a child.

Will it work

Many forward thinking organisations welcome the move but see some practical difficulties. Mary-Jo McFadden, equality and diversity manager for BT, says that much of the problem is the difficulty in “not knowing what transferability looks like in practice”.

McFadden expresses a further concern about administering a scheme of transferred leave: “It would be easier for small organisations, but for larger companies such as BT, unless it’s a statutory pay option it would be difficult to work.” Assuming, of course, most parents work for different companies.

“It’s a huge ask of the tax system – there is a problem with wage replacement too if the minimum wage is higher than the statutory maternity/paternity pay level – they’ll be little appetite for it.”

Sarah Jackson, Working Families

Sarah Jackson, chief executive officer of Working Families, voices similar concerns: “It’s a huge ask of the tax system – there is a problem with wage replacement too, if the minimum wage is higher than the statutory maternity/paternity pay level – they’ll be little appetite for it.”

In reality, Jackson believes that men in low income jobs wouldn’t be able to lose the income, presenting an indirect discrimination between professional and manual workers. Fisher has estimated the take-up rate of transferred leave could be as little as 4-8% for this very reason.

Jackson highlights a further inequality. Under the proposals, it’s up to the mum to make the decision to ‘transfer’ the leave to the father; she would like to see a system where the father has his own independent right to take leave: “It also depends on the mother being in employment,” says Jackson, who adds that in reality many women don’t have the right to maternity leave in the first place, or leave the labour market after having their first child.

Jenny Balme, head of reward and relations at accountancy firm Grant Thornton, flags up employer costs: “How expensive extending paternity leave would be to employers would very much depend on whether they enhance payment during leave. Smaller companies in particular may find it more difficult.”

So what’s the answer?

Fisher points to overseas examples: “In other countries, families do choose differently. Currently, 80% of men earn more than women in the UK. When the woman has already carried the penalty of having time off and said to the employer, ‘I’m putting my children before my career’, the father is not going to then swap roles with them.”

“Implementing measures that allow your people to work flexibly or work from home goes a long way in supporting work-life balance for everyone.”

Jenny Balme, Grant Thornton

Fisher believes the key is changing the expectation so that when men become fathers they are expected to take time off.

In Iceland, both mother and father have the right to three months’ parental leave each. Parents also have a joint right to three additional months, which may either be taken entirely by one of the parents or else divided between them. Fisher says it’s a gleaming example of how things could be in the UK and says the take-up amongst men is very good in Iceland.

Jackson is a little less clear on what can be learnt from abroad: “I find it totally impossible to compare the models because there are so many different economic factors. What is interesting is that in one of the Scandinavian countries, a report showed that the more time a dad takes off with his new baby the more evenly the caring is split later on into the child’s life.”

In reality what this means is that the schools don’t default to ringing mum up at work when the child is sick, meaning that there is less impact on women’s careers – driving equal opportunities forward.

Regardless of legislative changes, BT is already forging ahead. McFadden says the secret is offering working parents options: “At the end of the day, we employ adults and we treat them as such. We want to support our fathers and they want BT to play an active role in bringing up their children so the right to request flexible working is open to everyone now. There’s a very active fathers’ group which is listened to. We try to reduce barriers – we try things; just to say a flat ‘no’ is no longer an option.”

Grant Thornton has adopted a similar attitude. Balme comments: “Implementing measures that allow your people to work flexibly or work from home goes a long way in supporting work-life balance for everyone.”

There’s no doubt that fatherhood is in a state of change. According to EHRC, comparative reports found that there is a greater acceptance of the less traditional gender roles in Britain than elsewhere, which are strongest in relation to women’s roles.

Reports also found that younger men in particular have expressed a wish to participate more fully in family life, and there are some fathers for whom the breadwinning role has less relevance, especially those whose partner is also working full-time.

What is clear is that the proposals need more work, with further consultation for paid time-off being a key sticking point, but if equality is ever to be a reality changes of this kind should be welcomed.

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Annie Hayes

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