By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor
There must have been much grinding of teeth among Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs on Monday morning, as Labour leader Ed Miliband garnered acres of advance media coverage for a speech in which, it was reported, he would commit a Labour government to doubling statutory paternity leave, from two to four weeks. For, not only did the Liberal Democrats adopt an arguably more impressive pledge to treble paternity leave to six weeks as long ago as September, but – as far as I can tell – Miliband delivered no such speech on Monday.
There’s certainly no transcript of any speech, nor even a press release. But the media had clearly been given the same song sheet to sing from, with everyone from the BBC to the Daily Mail reporting that Miliband would, later on Monday, say that:
Thanks to the last Labour government, fathers have two weeks’ paid paternity leave. Millions of families have benefited, with parents saying this has helped them support each other, share caring responsibilities and bond with their children. But the money isn’t great, and too many dads don’t take up their rights because they feel they have to go back to work so they can provide for their family.
The move was largely welcomed by media commentators as a positive step in the right direction, with only the Telegraph departing violently from the script to lambast the new pledge as a “spectacularly bad” response to the Coalition’s policy of shared parental leave, which it described as “the most progressive new parent support policy that Britain has ever had.” And, while the four in 10 new fathers who will not qualify for shared parental leave might well disagree with that assessment, the Telegraph does have a point. For, as a number of more thoughtful (and knowledgeable) analysts have noted since Monday, an extra two weeks of paternity leave does not a revolution in shared parenting make. Labour’s proposed four weeks of paternity leave would still leave the UK lagging some way behind Norway, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Iceland and Luxembourg.
Indeed, to at least one (essentially sympathetic) blogger, the move appeared to be less about progressive policy-making than creating “a headline to help persuade disaffected supporters to vote Labour in May”. And it is certainly true that there was no mention of paternity leave in last summer’s National Policy Forum report, which is supposed to form the basis of Labour’s general election manifesto. Yet the new policy, as now espoused by Miliband, was first proposed by left-leaning think tank IPPR in June last year. Curiouser and curiouser, but polling by YouGov confirms that extending paternity leave is popular with both men and women.
The employer lobby groups were not terribly impressed either, with the never knowingly understated British Chambers of Commerce grumbling that “well-meaning proposals such as this create very real costs for businesses, which can in turn lead to reduced productivity, reduced growth and fewer jobs”. Heavens above! And the Federation of Small Businesses certainly has a point when it says that “altering paternity leave so soon after introducing shared parental leave has the potential to cause confusion amongst businesses that are only getting to grips with the most recent changes [i.e. shared parental leave].”
However, as Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson noted, “businesses need to go with the grain of modern family life,” and our research confirms there is an appetite among young fathers, in particular, to do their share of childcare. Increasing paternity and parental leave creates an opportunity for businesses to help a core group of employees “give their best at work by recognising that they also want to give their best at home.” British bosses (and their lobby groups) should perhaps heed the words of this Swedish CEO, who fully expects his male employees to “take six months off at some point during their child’s early life”, and is in no doubt that “when our employees – both male and female – take time off to be with their children, it’s good for us in the long-term”.
In any case, the real radicalism in Miliband’s announcement is not the extra two weeks of paternity leave – as welcome as that is – but his pledge that all four weeks would be paid at £260 per week, the equivalent of a 40-hour week on the minimum wage and almost double the current, shockingly low rate of £138.18 per week. Because, if Labour now considers it necessary to pay fathers at least £260 per week to get them to take their full entitlement to paternity leave, as it surely is, then the same undoubtedly applies to shared parental leave. And it is inconceivable that a future government could pay fathers £260 per week when taking shared parental leave unless it paid women at least the same when they take maternity or shared parental leave.
Perhaps unthinkingly, Labour has boldly gone where no mainstream political party has gone before. Without even delivering a speech, Ed Miliband and his advisers have erected a neon-lit question mark over the ludicrously low rate at which statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave are paid.
And there’s now no way to turn off the power.