Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Good news and bad news on leave for new parents

The government is finally announcing a timetable for the introduction of paid paternity leave longer than two weeks. It's the same plan they've had for a while, and placed in the 2005 manifesto - to allow the mother to transfer months 6-12 of their leave to their partner (contrary to the reporting on the issue, and the implications of the name "paternity leave", this need not be the father, and applies equally to same-sex couples). It's not great, but it is a significant improvement on the current situation.

In worse news, that The Times appears to be the only news organisation to lead with, the government's promise from the same manifesto to make all 12 months of maternity leave paid has been abandoned. It's not entirely surprising, since doing this would cost tax revenues the government isn't currently getting - whereas the paternity leave change is neutral in terms of government spending, but it would be nice if for once it wasn't a plan that primarily benefited women that got axed for cost reasons. Harriet Harman MP, one of the few openly feminist cabinet members (and she gets a huge amount of criticism from the media for it), was apparently overruled by Lord Mandelson.

The response from some of the business organisations has been fairly predictable.

David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said it would be a good idea to allow fathers up to six months' leave "when the economy is working at full tilt" but it would harm businesses struggling with the recession.

"This is not the time to do it. It is a huge burden to plan for both a male and a female employee being away," he told the BBC News Channel.

If businesses can plan successfully for a small number of their staff to be unexpectedly ill for several months - and they have little alternative, they can plan for a small number of their staff to be expectedly absent for a well-defined period of time to look after their new children.

The major reason in favour of introducing extensive paternity leave (as has been done in a few other European countries such as Sweden, Finland and Iceland) is that it takes away from the culture that childcare is a woman's1 role and work is a man's (all three of Sweden, Finland and Iceland do noticeably better than the UK on measures of gender equality). It will obviously take a few years before any significant number of men start taking up the opportunity (and the way the leave is going to be set up isn't ideal), but it should help to erode that stereotype. More leave, better paid leave, and more flexible allocation, as those other countries have, would be better, but this is an important first step.

I do wonder how much of the opposition from businesses comes from "we can't hire a woman, because they might take maternity leave, and now you're saying that we can't hire men either? Who are we supposed to employ?" attitude.

The new leave would be available from April 2011

1 While the mother isn't necessarily a woman, and their partner isn't necessarily a man, it's by far the most common case, and it's unlikely that the "childcare is a woman's job" crowd are particularly considering any other family situations.