Major changes to the UK paternal leave system were announced last week that will make it easier for both parents to share almost a year of leave. Two weeks of leave will be specifically reserved for the mother in the period immediately following the birth, but it will be possible for the remaining 50 weeks to be split between both parents in the manner that they wish. This story was major news last Friday and the subject of articles in The Guardian, The Independent and on the BBC News website.
I have previously given my own views on the current UK paternity leave system on this blog and pointed towards some things that I would like to see change. I have also talked about what I learned during my two weeks of paternity leave. Although I welcome the general direction in which the changes are heading and the way that they have been framed by politicians such as Jo Swinson (Secretary of State for Women and Equalities) and Nick Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister), I do feel that there are five key issues that need to be examined when discussing the likely impact of the proposed new parental leave system:
1. What happens prior to birth needs to be addressed more fully. As I have said previously, a major failing of the current paternity leave system is that men are not entitled to time off to accompany their partner to antenatal appointments. For this reason, it is good to hear that the new proposals mean that men will be allowed time off to attend two antenatal appointments. After attending the standard 12 week and 20 week scans, this leaves no time to attend antenatal classes. I see this as a major issue given the importance of antenatal classes to first time parents and the role that they can play in reassuring dads-to-be and mums-to-be about the challenges that lie ahead when it comes to childbirth and adapting to life as parents.
2. As union leader Frances O’Grady has stated, greater incentives could be provided in order to encourage men to take more paternity leave. In some countries in Scandinavia, there is a ‘use it or lose it’ approach that means that a certain number of weeks are assigned to the dad to take as paternity leave and cannot be transferred to the mother. In other words, a dad’s decision to take paternity leave helps to increase the overall amount of paternal leave a couple can take. It is also important to note that the present UK system means that a man can currently take two weeks of paternity leave and a women can take 52 weeks of maternity leave (some of which can be transferred to the dad after the 6 month mark). This adds up to 54 weeks but the new system will reduce the total leave available to a couple to 52 weeks.
3. The Financial support for those taking parental leave needs to be increased if more dads are to take paternity leave and more parents are to take their full entitlement. Currently, women are paid 90% of their pre-tax wage for the first six weeks of their maternity leave and then the lower out of 90% of their wage or £136.78 (which generally means being paid £136.78) for the next 33 weeks and the remainder of the 52 week maximum is unpaid leave. Paternity leave is generally paid at a statutory minimum of £136.78, although some employers top this up. This means that it makes more sense from a purely financial perspective for men to take two weeks of holiday after their partner gives birth rather than taking paternity leave.
4. More needs to be done to get business leaders onside. American business professor and blogger Scott Behson has talked about the benefits of flexible working on his blog Fathers Work and Family, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was last week quoted in The Independent as saying that ‘many businesses already recognise how productive and motivated employees are when they’re given the opportunity to work flexibly, helping them retain talent and boost their competitive edge’. However, the UK’s Institute of Directors described the changes as ‘a nightmare’ and expressed concern at both the complexity and difficulties of implementing the changes from the perspective of businesses (see article on BBC News website).
5. Leading figures in the Conservative Party do not support the changes. The key figures that have talked up the new plans for paternal leave in the UK, such as Jo Swinson and Nick Clegg, are both from the Liberal Democrats (the junior partners in the UK’s coalition government). Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, apparently wanted to see initial paternity leave extended from four weeks to two weeks, but this was rejected by government colleagues. Several articles about the changes, such as this one from The Guardian have listed senior Conservative ministers who are opposed to the changes.
Even though the coalition government has not really given its full backing to the changes, I am glad to see that the Liberal Democrats have helped to bring about the imperfect but improved new system. The Lib Dems have taken some flak for abandoning some of their flagship policies since entering government (e.g. opposition to large increases in university tuition fees). This has led to a joke about a person who phones the Lib Dem headquarters and explains that he would like to buy a copy of the party manifesto. When they are told ‘I’m sorry, we’ve sold out’ by the person on the other of the phone, their reply is ‘I know, but I’d still like to buy a copy of the manifesto’.
Now, I would like to see both Liberal Democrat and Conservative members of the government doing more to get business leaders onside for the sake of dads, mums and families. It is a real shame that certain business leaders have denounced work place flexibility without acknowledging that it can have benefits both for employees and businesses. I feel that striving towards a decent work life balance helps me to be as involved a parent as I can be and means that I am more content and productive when I am at work.
What is the parental leave system like where you live and how happy are you with it? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below or on the ‘Dad’s The Way I Like It’ pages on Facebook or Google+.
I’ve linked this post up with the #PoCoLo parent bloggers link-up hosted on Verily Victoria Vocalises.