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Government extends welcome hand to a ‘family-friendly economy’

Although I would’ve written a very different Queen’s speech to the one Her Majesty delivered today (see my alternative speech for the Staggers blog), I was pleased to see that IPPR recommendations from 2007 on flexible working and parental leave have at last been taken up in the Children and Families Bill.

We argued at the time that the right to request flexible working should be extended to all employees and that paid paternity leave should be doubled in duration to a month. The government’s proposed legislation delivers on both of these policies, and more. Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s key strategist, used to have a nice line about wanting a ‘family-friendly economy, not economy-friendly families’, and with at least one part of its brain (the bit that isn’t cutting deep into family budgets), the government gets this.

The provisions in the proposed legislation to extend the parental leave reserved for fathers, and to give families more flexibility over sharing the remaining leave, are welcome advances. It is impossible to achieve greater equality between men and women, at home and in the workplace, if maternity and paternity leave legislation entrenches women in the role of primary child-carers, while men remain full-time breadwinners. Women end up sacrificing their career ambitions while men are denied the chance to become deeply involved fathers in the precious first months of their children’s lives.

Unfortunately, without paying fathers at something closer to the wage replacement rate, it is unlikely that many men will be able to afford to use their reserved leave. This is the government’s own estimate of take-up rates, from its impact assessment of the changes:

Take-up of parental leave by fathers, government estimates

The maximum take-up among employees is projected to be 13 per cent. Compare that to countries which reserve leave for fathers and pay 80–100 per cent of earnings:

Provisions for fathers' parental leave, selected OECD countries

Once again, the Nordic countries top the table, as they do for female employment rates, low child poverty and most other indicators of wellbeing and equality for children and families. They combine lengthy, reserved and well-paid leave periods for fathers with wider parental leave flexibility and the offer of universal, affordable childcare when both parents are back at work. It’s expensive, of course, and in the UK resources to fund better paid leave for fathers would need to be found from somewhere, since the cost runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. But if you want a policy roadmap to the right place on these issues for the next parliament and beyond, look no further than the table above.

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