Explaining the UK's parental leave system to an outsider quickly leads to some tricky questions. Do mums get much more paid leave than dads because they're better care givers? Or maybe dads don't want to stay at home as much as mums do? In reality, the current system is a relic from a time when breadwinners were male and work was for one parent, not two. These things no longer hold true and the public policy that was shaped around them simply doesn't suit the UK anymore. Most families are dual-earners and many have female breadwinners. Moreover, the overwhelming majority believe childcare should be shared equally between parents.
Today Labour committed to increase the current provision of paid paternity leave from two weeks to four. The Lib Dems have already committed to a month's 'use it or lose it' leave for dads and, together with the Conservatives, oversaw the introduction of shared parental leave. These reforms would be a much needed update to the current system and benefit both individual families and the UK economy.
In countries where parental leave is more equitable, maternal employment is higher and the gender pay gaps are lower. Conversely, in places like the UK maternal employment is low in comparison, and gender pay gaps stretch far wider. Neither of these factors do us any economic good. Moreover, becoming a mum is associated with higher wage losses in the UK than in other countries. This 'motherhood pay penalty' is largest in countries whose policies reflect an outdated model of the family.
Extending leave for fathers is vital to smooth out some of these issues. But it is not revolutionary. The UK would be following in the footsteps of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Canada. The introduction of these policies tends to be met with a rise in the proportion of fathers who take leave. A longer (14 week) 'daddy quota' in Norway saw the proportion of fathers taking leave increase from 4 per cent to almost 90 per cent. Similar effects have been seen in other countries. However, the price has to be right. Take up is dependent upon financial factors like the salary replacement rate. This is evident in the UK, where many low paid dads do not take paternity leave because they can't afford it.
But what about the changes already underway to allow parents to share leave? Shared parental leave, coming in this April, could do much to open up choices to families and reduce gender inequality in the UK. But it is not enough on its own. The government anticipates take-up among fathers will be 2 to 8 per cent. Without an extension of paternity leave, the system will still limit choices for many parents.
Criticism from some employer representatives goes against the evidence and doesn't account for the views of all employers. In the UK many businesses offer occupational schemes for parental leave and reap the benefits of better recruitment and retention. Other organisations like the CBI propose an increase in government childcare support and more employer flexibility for parents. Moreover, the nature of extended paternity leave is not set in stone. For some parents, a two week block will work best; others may prefer to take it as a day a week over two months.
Increasing paid paternity leave from two weeks to four weeks might sound like a small step, but it's an essential one. It goes someway to creating an equitable system that sees mums and dads as equal and able. This proposal will most effectively support parents to balance work and care if it sits alongside other measures like capping parent's fees for childcare, extending universal childcare for parents of pre-schoolers, and improving quality by upscaling the workforce. Together these reforms would solve some stubborn economic problems and enable the UK to use more of its workforce while families can make more of their choices. What's not to like?