"Because fathers are parents too and deserve to spend more time with their new babies." Labour Party Manifesto, 2017
Page 48, point 14, in the new Labour Party Manifesto may have seemed a relatively small footnote in what was an otherwise stoic 'left-sided' document, but it's the first time I can remember 'fatherhood' being anywhere near the political arena. It is the sort of milestone that needs to create much wider debate about the role of fatherhood not just in politics, but in work, at home, and what real change means for modern dads.
The policy outlined a plan to double paternity leave and increase paternity pay. Labour aren't the only ones with the same dad-focus here. In fact they are hot on the heels of the Liberal Democrats who themselves announced a similar policy a few days ago. The Tories have come in on the action too - and just today announced in their manifesto the intention to improve take up of Shared Parental Leave and improve flexible work arrangements for mothers, AND fathers.
Real change or political opportunism?
It's often difficult to separate the genuinely useful policies from the deeply cynical in the political world, but here we can at least acknowledge some effort in addressing a growing tension that modern dads feel. They want to provide more and have successful professional careers, and they also want to be giving better quality care at home. We've seen over the last few months how 72% of working dads are close to burnout or how other fathers are increasingly at risk of a 'fatherhood penalty' in trying to balance it all. Perhaps these separate insights aren't separate at all, and the politicians are starting to recognize their connection.
The real question is, will these changes make an impact?
A dog isn't just for Christmas, and a father isn't just for 'new' babies
Double paternity is of course, on the face of it, a great start - as long as dads can afford it. There's something rather implicit, even rather conceited, in the manifesto that somehow 4 weeks will make that big a difference. On a relative basis, 2 extra weeks isn't going to make much impact.
When we look at child's performance - from the young, through to college, our Scandinavian neighbours (can I still call them that?) are still lightyears ahead of us, because they understand the real difference is when fathers are encouraged to spend much more time in those early months at home, not just a few weeks. Family is at the heart of the work/life balance equation in those countries, and their policies of shared leave and flexible working are reflective of that.
The Norwegian policy of parental leave for instance currently stands at 10 weeks for dads, 10 weeks for mums and 36 weeks to share. It is paid at 100% of earnings for 49 weeks or 80% for 59 weeks to eligible parents. The salary that will be paid is capped at 63,000 euros. Some employers top up to 100% pay for the whole period.
The Tory focus on Shared Parental Leave and more flexible work focus is actually the right longer term focus for a better parenting balance.
As much as it's encouraging that politicians are having the discussion on it, we need our employers to take the action on it, especially as there will be less EU legislation to bind a UK Government to push this along.
The fuller effects of Brexit
Speaking of Brexit, Mandy Garner of Working Mums attended a recent roundtable of parental policy experts across the EU, and shared a revelation that 'Post-Brexit Britain will be left with an unbalanced, maternalist leave policy of long maternity leave with weak and marginalised parental leave.' Professor Peter Moss for UCL Institute of Education acknowledged it was doubtful there would be much movement legislation-wise with the government tied up with Brexit. As he explained further - 'the recent announcement about parental leave by the EU, including the guarantee of a minimum of 10 days of paternity leave, four months of non-transferable parental leave per parent to be paid at at least statutory sick pay level and five days per year per parent for caring for sick or dependent relatives to be paid at statutory sick pay level or more is unlikely to be carried through now to the UK. Though some of those improvements feel modest, they are at least grounded by EU law.
While it should be commended that the major political parties are at least acknowledging the role of fathers in the modern age, we need to be careful of delivering soundbites with little real change, and instead focus on the policies and conversations with employers that drive much more real equity in a balanced parenting world.