As you may have heard, the Labour party made a pre-election pledge yesterday. If it wins the forthcoming general election, it has vowed to double paternity leave from two to four weeks and increase statutory paternity pay. Presently capped at £138.18, it would increase to a maximum of £260.
At this point I have to make a declaration. I was given the honour of appearing on Channel 4 news last night to discuss and debate this issue with Lynne Burnham of campaign group Mothers at Home Matter and none other than legendary news reporter Jon Snow (see video recording below).
It’s no secret that I have disagreed with Mothers at Home Matter in the past. The two of us are unlikely to agree on much but it was all very cordial in the Green Room prior to going on air and I was very pleased to hear Lynne acknowledge that dads do in fact have a role to play in a child’s early years (it’s how much of a role we’ll never agree on).
Getting back to the matter in hand, what about this proposed policy? I personally think it is very easy to over-think what the Labour party has put forward. In very simple terms I believe it addresses three major failings in the present paternity leave system;
1. It recognises the majority of dads want to play a practical, hands on role in their offspring’s early years. It also acknowledges that fathers are increasingly involved as parents.
2. It will make paternity leave affordable for many more men who are in employment. I know of men that had to forego their paternity leave and take holiday entitlement because their employer only paid the statutory minimum of £138.18 a week and this barely covered the mortgage / rent.
3. I suspect this was unintentional, but it addresses one of the great maternity taboos; childbirth is rarely straightforward. Mum frequently needs time to physically recover and sometimes baby does too. If a woman has a Caesarean section or forceps delivery or if the baby needs to spend time in a special care baby unit, two weeks is a pitiful length of paternity leave.
On this final point I speak with some personal experience. Neither of my wife’s deliveries was straightforward. I was needed at home to keep things running and if I’d had to return to work after two weeks the stress levels would have been immeasurable (I had pre-arranged to take an entire month off using a mix of paternity leave and holiday entitlement).
Needless to say, this policy would come with a cost. The Institute for Public Policy Research has estimated the cost, much of it being met by business, would be around £150million a year. I’ve got huge sympathy with employers as there’s no escaping this is yet another cost they would be contributing towards. Unfortunately, however, I think doing the right thing sometimes has a price tag and on this occasion it can’t be avoided.
The coalition Government’s shared parental leave rules, which come into force in April, are a major step in the right direction. Its attempts to reform the system are to be welcomed and with the relevant laws in place, the debate seemed to be shifting to address the issue of paternity pay (see the remarks made by Justine Roberts of Mumsent in this blog post. The remarks were made at an event I attended last November that was co-hosted by Mumsnet and the Confederation of British Industry).
I have to be entirely honest; I struggle to see Ed Milliband as Prime Minister. I’m still not convinced he’s acceptable to many of the electorate. Even so, this policy announcement has generated huge debate and interest. It’s certainly a very digestible policy and it will be very interesting to see how Labour’s rivals respond. I will be watching with interest.