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Paid Maternity Leave Does Us No Favours Either Say Fathers

Paid Maternity Leave Does Us No Favours Either Say Fathers

A benefit that enriches family life or a burden that sabotages women’s careers? Nicola Brewer’s claim that the extension of maternity leave and parental rights has hampered women’s employment chances has drawn praise and criticism in equal measure.

Ms Brewer, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said it was “an incovenient truth” that employers thought twice about employing women because of the additional costs and inconvenience incurred. Her claim, published in The Times yesterday, had triggered a vociferous debate.

Duncan Fisher, chief executive of the Fathers Institute, a think-tank, said that new legislation that allows mothers to transfer some of their maternity leave to their partners would be “completely useless” unless fathers were given more support and better incentives to take time off work.

Mr Fisher said that there was overwhelming evidence that men and women both wanted fathers to be more involved with childcare. Yet despite that, women continued to take the lead role because it did not make financial sense for men to take the time off work. “You’ve got the demand but it’s not happening and the answer is economics,” Mr Fisher said.

Mr Fisher said that new legislation to allow women to transfer the last six months of maternity leave to men was well intended but it would never work.

“If you try to transfer parental leave it will always roll down the hill to the lowest earner,” he said, adding that in 80 per cent of families men earn more than their partners.

“The prices need to be adjusted so that those parents can choose to share more if they want to.”

He added: “A lot of men say, ‘If I ask for part-time work or flexible work it would be the end of my career’. As a result men don’t take time off for childcare, it’s just the way it is.” Business leaders argued that it was both unacceptable and illegal to discriminate against working mothers. John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI, said that any further legislation would be prohibitively expensive for both taxpayers and businesses: “Women make up half the workforce and the majority of employers do their utmost to attract and retain them.

“Potential mothers have a wealth of skills and experience to offer, so to discriminate against them would not only be immoral and illegal, but damaging to the firm’s workforce and the economy.”

British fathers have the most unequal rights in Europe, entitled to only two weeks’ leave compared with 52 for mothers. However, Mr Cridland argued that as well as paid paternity leave, which he said was often topped up by an employer, fathers could also take parental leave, request flexible working and would soon be able to swap the final six months of maternity leave with the mother.

He said: “We need a cultural shift to encourage more fathers to take up their existing rights, as at present only one in five takes up their right to paternity leave.”

Theresa May, the Conservative equality spokeswoman, said fathers wanted the opportunity to have more of a role in bringing up their children. “As the EHRC has said today, there is a real danger that huge ‘disparity’ in maternity and paternity leave could have a negative effect on women’s employment.”

Patricia Hewitt, the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the former Minister for Women and Equality, said that government needed to do more to make it “acceptable and normal” for fathers to take time off or to change their working habits to look after their children.

“There’s a growing minority of parents in this new generation who want to share the care of their children . . . but that will require a culture change in the workplace,” she said.

Ms Hewitt said the ability for mothers to transfer leave was “a very significant step forward in the British context”, but she said that she believed the next step must be the introduction of longer paid leave for men, to address the balance.

She said that the Government had done a lot to change attitudes to working mothers in the public sector and much of that had fed through successfully to the private sector, but she conceded: “There’s still a long way to go.”

She insisted that it was not all doom and gloom. “I am old enough to remember all the arguments around the initial introduction of paid maternity leave for women . . . and in every case that turned out to be false and employers . . . went on employing more and more women,” she said.

Cat Banyard, campaign officer for the Fawcett Society, the women’s equality group, said that giving the power to women to transfer some or all of the second six months of maternity leave to the father “sends a powerful message that the first port of call in all cases is the mother”.

Instead, the Government needed to rename maternity leave as “parental leave” and ensure that mothers and fathers get at least the minimum wage when off work looking after their children, as opposed to the £117.18 per week they get now.

Ms Banyard said that most men did not even take the two weeks allocated to them because it meant taking a cut in pay. Instead, many opted to use their annual holiday allowance for paternity leave to ensure they did not take a pay cut.

Mr Fisher said one way to address the problem was for the Government to mandate that fathers be paid for the parental leave they can take — unpaid — from the second year of their child’s life until the fifth birthday. “You have to be pragmatic,” he said. “At the moment, the more you pay the maternity leave, the more the mother will take it and the men won’t.”

Views from the blog

“Maternity leave is a real burden on small businesses. One man who worked for me said his wife would like a job as a secretary. Within less than a month she announced she was pregnant. Of course she told us she’d be coming back to work, and of course she didn’t.” Guy

“Why are parents being allowed such flexibility and perks in the first place? As I see it, it puts a burden of extra work on non-parents, and those whose children are older. Better to give employment to those without the responsibility for young children I say.” Denise

“So if women want to have kids that’s up to them? OK, we’ll stop then, if we’re going to be so penalised by society — and then humanity will die out. Perhaps if it was parental leave rather than maternity leave then it would be regarded less as the choice of a selfish woman.” Katherine

“Much better if all employers had to contribute to a tax-exempt savings fund which the employee could tote from job to job and top up themselves, and use (tax free) to pay for childbirth-related expenses, or retirement, or even a house.” Delilah

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