Dr Tomos Davies is a former Government Special Adviser and Parliamentary Candidate. He is Chair of Ynys Môn (Anglesey) Conservative Association.
In the past month, I have become a father for the first time. I have cherished the precious time that I have had with my new-born, marvelling at her daily development.
But like so many fathers, I have now returned to the workplace after what feels like the briefest of paternity leave.
Penning a column for ConservativeHome might not seem like the most obvious respite from the sleepless nights and copious nappy changes. However, as a new father, and secondly a proud Conservative, I have found myself pondering in recent days what more can be done to support hard working families with childcare responsibilities.
Just as mothers, and women more widely, have sought greater equality and opportunity in the workplace, modern fathers want to pursue a successful career as well as shoulder their share of childcare responsibilities. It would seem the Government shares this aspiration, and wants to see more fathers involved in, and taking on, childcare responsibility.
We Conservatives have a particularly proud record of supporting families and working fathers, from introducing the married couples allowance to pioneering shared parental leave, as well as promoting the right to flexible working.
The greatest achievement of the Coalition Government was arguably the ground-breaking introduction of Shared Paternity Leave in 2015. It was intended to send “a clear message that responsibility for providing care in a child’s first year should be shared.”
However, in the three years since its introduction the uptake amongst fathers has been incredibly disappointing. Earlier this year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirmed that as little as two per cent of the 285,000 eligible couples every year had taken advantage of the scheme.
The Government will be undertaking a review later this year of its shared parental leave policy. This review presents an opportunity to think anew about how we as Conservatives can better support families with childcare responsibilities, and reclaim our reputation as the party of families.
At present, many fathers simply cannot afford to take shared parental leave because it is paid at such a low flat rate, equivalent to less than a quarter of men’s median full-time (gross) weekly earnings. International evidence suggests that parental leave should be paid at near-salary replacement levels in order to make it financially viable and attractive for fathers to take some time off to care for their children.
This was a view endorsed earlier this year by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee, which recommended that the statutory two weeks’ paternity leave should be paid at 90 per cent of earnings (capped), bringing it in line with maternity pay which is paid for six weeks at 90 percent (uncapped).
International evidence further suggests that the paternal leave schemes which stimulate the best take-up rate by fathers are those which reserve an individual ‘quota’ of leave for the father. In Norway, again, ten weeks of parental leave are reserved for the father on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Prior to the introduction of this quota, only four per cent of eligible fathers took advantage of parental leave. Today, almost 90 per cent of fathers are enrolled in the scheme.
It should be self-evident that children benefit when fathers take paternity leave and play a decisive role in their children’s cognitive and emotional development. But there is also a compelling economic case for enacting similar reforms here in the UK. Fathers shouldering greater responsibility for childcare duties enables women to re-join the workplace much quicker. This, in turn, helps to address the gender pay gap.
Clearly, any reforms must be balanced against the needs of businesses. Offering paid parental leave isn’t just the right thing to do, but makes good business sense too. Happy parents who feel supported and valued by their companies make for a happier workplace. This in turn boosts worker productivity, reduces staff turnover and increases employee retention.
It would be some statement from this Conservative Government if shared paternity leave was reformed to provide fathers with an individual, non-transferable right to parental leave paid at a higher rate than the current statutory provision.
But why stop there? We Conservatives pride ourselves on being the party of opportunity. Since 2015, shared parental leave legislation has enabled employed couples to split up to 52 weeks of their time off work after the birth of their child and 39 weeks of statutory pay. But the right does not extend at present to the self-employed. There are some 4.7 million self-employed workers in this country. The long-term trend is that the number of self-employed within the labour market will increase even further.
Earlier this year, the Labour MP, Tracy Brabin, introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill, which sought to extend shared paternity rights to the self-employed, which attracted cross-party support, including from Conservative backbenchers Ed Vaizey and Maria Miller. In the wider context of the Taylor Review, which made a compelling case for harmonising the entitlements of different groups of workers, the Government would send an incredibly powerful signal to families across the length and breadth of the country if it legislated to equalise shared paternity rights between the employed and self-employed.
If Conservative candidates learnt anything from the humbling experience of the 2017 General Election campaign, is that we need to develop a compelling package of policies with which we can confidently enter the next election. Our support at the 2017 General Election was stymied by our failure to talk the language of families and to communicate that we had their interests at heart. Perhaps the most worrying trend of all, as highlighted by Onward, was the swing against the Conservative party amongst professionals and parents aged 25-45.
We Conservatives have a proud tradition of supporting and championing families. It is time we rediscovered this proud tradition. Surely, there cannot be a greater expression of the Conservative Party’s support for families than by extending and enhancing paternity rights to thousands of hard-working families across the country.