Chris Daniels has served on the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers and worked for the Bank of England. He contested Stockton North in 2015.
Can we do better than the policy of Shared Parental Leave, introduced by David Cameron? It allows parents, after a minimum maternity period (you can’t change biology!), to share up to 50 weeks of leave, 37 weeks of which is paid. Leave can also be taken more flexibly than in the past. It was a small step in the right direction, but its take-up has been low (well under ten per cent). Perhaps something more radical is required.
So why the low take up? There are lots of theories, but one of the key issues lies in the economics. Shared Parental Leave is paid at the rate of £141 a week, or 90 per cent of an employee’s average weekly earnings, whichever is lower. Many large companies offer maternity leave paid at well above the statutory minimum, sometimes as generous as six months on full pay. The same companies will offer a father just two weeks of leave. Yes, of course, a father can take advantage of SPL but, faced with a choice between having a mum at home on full salary and a dad on the statutory minimum, the choice is obvious.
My own situation is probably not unusual. My wife and I both have well-paid full time jobs. Indeed, we are one of the increasing proportion of couples where the female is the higher earner. Both our employers are relatively progressive, and encourage diversity and inclusion. If we were to have a child, my wife would be given four months of maternity leave on full pay. But if I chose to stay home to look after that child, I would get two weeks of paternity leave on full pay, and then the statutory minimum. (Conversely, mums at my company get six months of full paid leave).
Although I would be happy to take paternity leave, faced with this economic choice it would be difficult for us as a couple to agree that it made economic sense for me to stay at home. And even at the most progressive employers, absence from the workplace can limit a career – not being present, having that bit less experience, puts someone at a disadvantage.
Some farsighted employers, particularly in the Tech sector, have already started sorting this out. In a field in which competition for talent is fierce and new ideas are paramount, companies such as Netflix offer fathers 52 weeks of parental leave on full pay. Other employers will probably catch up eventually, but it could easily take ten or 20 years.
Norway, along with some of the other Scandinavian countries, allows parents to divide up to 46 weeks paid at 100 per cent, and ten weeks of that is reserved exclusively for the father: use it or lose it. Since the introduction of this rule in 1993, the percentage of fathers taking at least twelve weeks of paternity leave has risen from 3 per cent to 90 per cent.
As a Conservative I am instinctively against more rules – but sometimes corporations need a shove in the right direction. Now is the time for government to think about requiring real equality: large companies should be required to offer paternity leave on the same basis as maternity leave. Families should have the choice of who should stay home. Let’s not continue our culture of assuming it is the woman, by offering discriminatory terms to men.
There are – of course – some logistical issues. I am not suggesting double parental leave: parents probably shouldn’t be able to get both, which would lead to an increase in businesses’ costs and reduction in productivity. I am simply suggesting sharing on an equal basis. We would have to create a system for sharing between employers, and we’d always have situations in which companies had very different allowances for parental leave, even if the imbalance between the sexes was sorted out.
As well as offering flexibility to families, equal terms could help to eliminate any remaining vestiges of reluctance to employ women because of employers’ perceptions that they may go on maternity leave and be an unproductive drain in company resources. In future, it could be the father going instead. There’s a risk that companies might have to offer shorter periods of parental leave if it is to be offered on a truly equal basis – but that may be the price we have to pay for real equality.
The Labour Party policy is for longer paternal leave; probably another small step in the right direction, but still short of true equality. Companies themselves are slowly moving towards equality, but this change will take a long time without legislation. Requiring companies to offer parental leave on an equal basis to men could be good for children, who can spend more time with their fathers, could help women’s careers and could help bring remaining discrimination to an end.
The Conservatives have always been faster than Labour to recognise and encourage progressive changes in the workforce. Let’s do it again this time.