Wilf Stevenson on helping fathers better support and care for their children
There is much to welcome in the parts of the Children and Families Bill dealing with parental leave. The changes proposed by the government are likely to help improve gender equality at both work and home, and some families will get greater choice about how they share childcare. All that said, Ministers need to say why there is not more support in this Bill for fathers, particularly as a number of ideas had been floated in the pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation processes.
The Modern Workplaces consultation, run by BIS, says there is “strong evidence of the benefits of shared parenting and in particular that fathers who are engaged in caring for their children early on are more likely to stay involved”. The only entitlement for fathers in their own right remains two weeks leave at the flat rate – assuming they qualify for paternity leave at all. Will this not result in some fathers continuing to be unable to take any paid leave at the time of their child’s birth? Is it really satisfactory for fathers to have to rely on short term, unpaid ‘time off for dependants’ to accompany their partners?
International evidence shows that fathers’ take up of leave is influenced by whether it is ‘earmarked’ for them and adequately paid. The consultation had proposed a ‘father quota’ to encourage more of them to take leave. Ministers however, have decided not to introduce this “until the economy has properly recovered” and “flexible parental leave has fully embedded”. But what determining criteria and time or volume indicators will be used to assess all of this?
Shared parental leave will only be available to couples where both parents are economically active, and meet service and earnings requirements. According to the Office for National Statistics, 2010 saw approximately 782,000 maternities in Britain, but the maximum number of fathers who may be eligible for shared parental leave will be just 285,000 (36%) of that number, according to a BIS impact assessment. That’s hardly a satisfactory level of engagement by fathers.
I wonder whether the Bill misses an opportunity to improve independent rights of access to leave and support for fathers. After all, the issue of fathers’ sharing care is one, first and foremost, about what’s good for children and the whole family too. It gives children more time with their fathers – a very good thing for both. It enables women to keep a foothold in the world of work – better for their future prospects than taking time out. And it is good for couples’ relationships.
Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Labour Peer, and a member of the Shadow BIS and DCMS teams
Published 2nd July 2013