Can Labour really learn from Denmark?

21 Feb

Another week, another Nordic-inspired family policy initiative.  Previously Wonklifebalance was sceptical about David Cameron’s trip to Sweden to learn about getting more women into business and the boardroom; this week it’s time to cast a critical eye over Labour’s proposition to look to Denmark for inspiration concerning State-subsidised childcare and employment trends.

In the Observer Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg talk about creating ‘a childcare system fit for families in the 21st century’, under a headline declaring   that ‘Labour’s childcare plans will help families work’.  I think what they actually mean is that their proposals will help parents work, and by parents who do they mean?  Yes, it’s really about mothers.  The article places the case for childcare subsidy in the context of women’s employment and unemployment figures, rather than looking at figures for mothers and fathers – which would of course reveal substantial gender differences in employment through the childrearing years.  They also say that their policy review will be conducted together with Yvette Cooper and Tessa Jowell – but the policy initiative is being promoted here by men only, a shame given the small proportion of women at senior levels in British politics.

Elsewhere in the Observer Lucy Buck does acknowledge that the Danish system of universal childcare rests on the assumption that mothers will return to work full-time, and that fathers’ relatively generous paternity leave and access to flexible working is an important part of the picture.  The gap between experiences in Denmark and the UK therefore remains pretty big and cannot be solved through childcare issues alone.  Clearly there is a need to address the unusually high price of childcare in the UK.  OECD figures (page 3 Panel B) show that childcare costs are 8% of family net income for dual earner couples with two children in Denmark, but stand at 33% in the UK. Lack of affordable childcare is a major barrier to sustaining employment after childbirth – not only for the poorest families. And we are still a long way from having paid paternity leave of substance in this country.  This is in contrast to the Scandinavian countries who not only pay men for more substantial periods of leave at the time of birth, but encourage men’s leave-taking throughout the early years through elaborate systems of flexible parental leave.  These factors matter, for they release Danish and other Scandinavian couples from the pattern of mothers’ secondary earning and the complete foregoing of women’s earnings, so often the ‘rational choices’ for UK men and women in deciding who does what.  Mothers in the UK work part-time in high numbers because it is the compromise which best enables some accommodation of school hours and family life alongside the earnings required to maintain a family home; the persistent gender pay gap means that fathers are reciprocally tied to full-time work, often with little opportunity for family time during the working week.  If Labour allows subsidised childcare to remain a women’s issue they miss an opportunity to see mothers and fathers as equal partners at home and in the workplace, which is the aspiration expressed by current and future parents in survey after survey in the UK today.

The UK political parties’ desire to learn from Scandinavian examples is motivated much more by examining the work side of work-life balance than the aspect of family life and domestic labour and childcare.  Wonklifebalance is all for universal affordable childcare à la Denmark and Sweden to facilitate sustaining employment alongside parenthood.  Undoubtedly the Nordic countries are much further along the path of equality of choice between women and men in dividing earning and caring in families, but a more rarely cited statistic (OECD Gender Brief page 15 ) is the one which shows how unpaid work is shared between men and women – even in Scandinavia your mother is more likely to be doing the domestic chores or looking after you than your father.  This is the nut that has been hardest to crack from a gender equality perspective – and one which still exerts an influence on employment rates by gender everywhere.  Last year the Swedes decided that they had progressed sufficiently that they would reward families with a ‘gender equality bonus’ of nearly £300 a month where the man stayed at home with children and his partner returned to work.  This demonstrates that even in Scandinavia, the gender pay gap and gendered pattern of care have required structured incentives to enable men to support women through caring as well as income.  Labour should take note of the Nordic insight that work-life balance has to be for both sexes in order to be widely achieved: subsidised childcare would then be about facilitating working parents.

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