Making Britain less Edwardian? Or just more Elizabethan?

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

Flexible working and family-friendly policies were on the agenda this morning, when the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, delivered a keynote speech at the launch of Cityfathers, a welcome new “network for City professionals who have a shared interest in balancing family life with a progressive career”.

The speech was strong on rhetoric and aspirations, with the Deputy Prime Minister asserting that “we need to tackle once and for all the hidden prejudices which still limit the choices of many men and women” with a “once-in-a-generation chain reaction across our offices, factories and other workplaces”.  Hear hear to that.

But it was less strong on history, with a headline-grabbing but somewhat baffling assertion that “we have to sweep away those Edwardian rules which still hold back those families working hard to juggle their responsibilities at home and at work. For decades, our parental leave system has been based on the assumption that it’s dad who goes out to work while mum cares for the kids – giving fathers two weeks off when your baby is first born and mothers up to a year”.

Edwardian rules? The statutory right of new fathers to two weeks’ paid paternity leave dates from 2003, and it was only in 2007 that paid maternity leave was extended from six to nine months (the plan to further extend it to a year later being abandoned).  And, as one expert noted recently, the reality is that during the Edwardian era – the decade after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 – a great many working class families counted on two wages, not one. Mr Clegg’s ‘dad at work while mum cares for the kids’ model is more a mid-20th century thing, for the masses at least.

Rather more seriously, the speech was somewhat longer on exhortation to employers than it was on governmental policies to “drag those clapped out rules into the 21st Century”. Avoiding any reference to the shockingly low rate at which statutory paternity leave is paid – less than 60 per cent of the national minimum wage – Mr Clegg suggested that the new right to shared parental leave, due to come into force in April 2015, will play a key role in making family-friendly working “the new norm in Britain”.

However, as the Fatherhood Institute was quick to point out, this legal change is most unlikely to significantly increase fathers’ uptake of parental leave above current levels – not least because “by the government’s own estimate, fathers in only one in three working families will be eligible for it”.  And cultural change will be glacially slow in coming so long as take up of paternity leave remains so pitifully low.

As we note in our draft ‘families & work’ manifesto for 2015, it is vital that we get fathers more involved in caring for their children, so as to ensure gender equality in the home as well as at work,  and reduce overall childcare costs for families.  And to do this, we suggest that the government elected in 2015 needs to work towards longer, more flexible and better paid periods of dedicated leave for fathers. At the very least, statutory paternity (and maternity) pay needs to be steadily raised to at least parity with the national minimum wage, and entitlement to statutory paid paternity leave needs to be increased from two to six weeks, with further increases to follow in the longer term.

In short, what we need is not so much a sweeping away of Edwardian rules, but more – or simply better – Elizabethan rules. Elizabeth the Second, that is.

Postscript:  If I’ve been unduly harsh to Mr Clegg, I definitely have to hand it to Miriam Gonzalez Durantez – aka Mrs Clegg – who left little room for doubt when she ‘hijacked’ her husband’s Q&A following his Cityfathers speech to declare that men who take time out from work to look after their children have “more cojones”.  Amen to that.

 

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