As someone who has tried recently to persuade their husband to take additional paternity leave, I’m all too familiar with the barriers which stand in the way of more dads taking paternity leave.
A TUC report this week highlights that less than one per cent of dads are taking advantage of changes that allow them to take up to 26 weeks’ additional paternity leave and receive additional statutory paternity pay if a mother returns to work before taking her full maternity leave.
I am not surprised this figure is so low given my own recent experience. Cultural factors and the level of paid leave mean that fathers get a raw deal. Lengthy service requirements, low levels of pay and restrictive eligibility criteria for statutory paternity leave and pay mean many fathers miss out. Yet paternity and parental leave are central to involved fatherhood and involved fatherhood is central to gender equity and family stability. Researchers in Sweden have shown that for every additional month of leave taken by a father, his partner’s annual income increases by seven per cent. The first 2-3 months of fatherhood can affect the way that a father relates to his child for the rest of their lives and the taking of parenting leave by fathers is good for the whole family.
That’s why it is disappointing that, while measures being brought in by the government as part of the children and families bill going through parliament at the moment are a step in the right direction, they are too weak and a missed opportunity. The government’s own figures show that only between two and eight per cent of eligible fathers will take up shared parental leave, and that this figure will be closer to two per cent, mirroring their failure on additional paternity leave take-up.
So what could a better deal for dads and mums look like? One way to improve take-up of paternity leave would be to make it a ‘use it or lose it’ right – on the continent this has led to big increases in the number of fathers taking it up. Labour should look at ways to boost the amount of paternity leave reserved just for fathers from two to four weeks. Increasing this father’s quota would recognise the important role that each parent can play and encourage a change in culture. More flexible part-time leave, part-time pay so mums and dads can return to work part-time and take their leave part-time would help too.
We also need to look creatively at how we can improve the level of paternity pay to make it a more realistic option for fathers.
A radical approach would be to look at schemes to share pay between mothers and fathers, initially in the public sector. The public sector is a huge employer and I’d like to see the next Labour government trailing shared pay so if a mother returns to work her partner could share the remainder of her paid leave at this higher rate which would make shared leave a more affordable option. This scheme would not cost the Treasury and would be a way to boost the number of dads taking leave. It would also provide an example to the private sector which could be further rolled out in time.
This government has presided over a squeeze in living standards which means that parents, and particularly fathers who are working even longer hours to support young families, are struggling with a cost of living crisis. Radical policies tailored to the needs of families should be a central part of a One Nation Labour package to tackle the cost of living crisis and give working parents a better deal.
Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and a vice-chair of Progress
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