Just a few short months ago, it all looked so promising. In a very high-profile move, a powerful group of MPs had called for radical workplace reform following a review of working practices and how they impact on fathers.
At the time I said that I felt like a “great weight had been lifted off me”. This was very personal. It was, after all, an inability to balance work and family life that led to me giving up on my career seven years ago to become the main carer for my kids.
Fathers trying to have it all
It was the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) that had given me hope for future generations of fathers and their families. In a very high-profile move, the WESC published a report into fathers in the workplace. These are my words, not the WESC’s, but it had recognised that dads were frequently trying to have it all and facing similar issues to women.
The committee had called for increased paternity pay, paternity and maternity pay to be extended to the self-employed and those running their own businesses. Wherever possible, jobs were to be advertised as flexible from day one.
Although somewhat confused, there was also a plan to reform shared parental leave by giving new fathers a ring-fenced entitlement to their own leave. I won’t go into detail as I’m yet to meet anyone who can definitively understand or explain what the WESC was proposing on this point.
Nonetheless, the fact it was proposing change showed it had got the message the policy needs reform to make it work properly. Three years after its introduction, few men are exercising their right to this leave, so it needs to change.
This was high-profile stuff. It was all over the news and I even found myself appearing on the BBC’s Newsnight programme to discuss it.
While the focus was on fathers, the WESC had done its homework and worked out these proposals would have a positive impact on women’s earnings and also stated it would help employers recruit and retain staff.
I was daft
While I was very excited by all this, I did also comment at the time that it was “daft” of me to feel so positive. After all, these were only recommendations and may go nowhere.
Last week, on the run-up to Father’s Day, the Government came back with a formal response to the WESC’s proposals. This time, however, they barely got any media attention at all.
I was indeed a bit daft to go hoping for the best. Every single proposal has either been rejected or kicked into the long grass.
Not simply about fathers or men
Again, I have to stress this is not simply about fathers or men’s rights. An improved shared parental leave system would help employers retain female talent.
Extending maternity and paternity allowances to the self-employed and business owners would simply be a recognition of the fact that these individuals are being taxed more heavily than in the past. If you pay more, you should receive more, so it would make the system fairer.
The issue that really gets me is the one of improved paternity pay. This, as far as I’m concerned, is a real scandal. Men very often receive two weeks leave, paid at statutory levels. That, for the record, is presently £140.98 or 90% of your earnings per week, whichever is less.
Many fathers simply can’t afford this. Men often don’t take the leave at all or take it out of their holiday entitlement. I have met many men who had to do this and it’s an issue that desperately needs addressing.
You have to be realistic about these things. It would have been too much to expect the Government to adopt every single policy proposal immediately.
There’s no escaping the fact some of these proposals would come with a financial cost. Even the WESC conceded the cost for its proposed changes for updating Shared Parental Leave would be ‘considerable.’
Even so, to reject everything was disappointing. My one great hope was that the Government would at least commit itself to introducing fair and proper paternity pay, something that would have an immediate and sizeable impact, especially on families in lower income brackets.
Change in the future?
There is one glimmer of hope. The Government has committed to holding a ‘maternity and paternity rights survey’ this year. It’s possible the data collected from this will lead to change, although it clearly won’t happen any time soon.
The other positive thing to some out of this is a comment buried deep in the Government’s response. It stated it was “committed” to shared parental leave and thanked the WESC for highlighting various “sub-optimal” elements of the policy, including “low levels of awareness, complexity and policy design.” One can but hope the Government will reform the policy instead of pusuing its softly-softly #sharethejoy campaign.
Commenting on the Government’s response, Maria Miller MP, chair of the WESC, said “the gender pay gap will not be tackled” until fathers “get the support they need to support their children too.”
Miller added it was “regrettable” the Government hadn’t acted upon the evidence presented to it. She said there was “some encouragement” ministers recognised the need for “debate about the costs and benefits of modernising workplace support for families and fathers.” She finished by saying the WESC would continue to press for reform.
I guess it’s a case of watching this space to see what happens. Personally, I feel this was a great opportunity that’s been missed.