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Springing into action on Shared Parental Leave?

20 Mar

Today marks the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere, the official start of Spring, and the day when we experience almost exactly equal amounts of daylight and night time.  What better time to consider the balance between the sexes in terms of earning and caring work, and gender equality in general?

Appropriately, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee have published their Fathers and the Workplace report, making recommendations concerning paternity leave, flexible working, workplace culture and the much-discussed – and often criticised –  Shared Parental Leave, which was first made available to parents almost exactly three years ago, in 2015.

Shared Parental Leave was introduced in order to better meet the aspirations of new generations of mothers and fathers, who wish to share employment and childcare responsibilities more equally, avoiding the traditional default of breadwinner fathers and mothers as parents-in-chief.  As dual-earner families have grown in numbers, and younger men and women report more egalitarian attitudes regarding paid work and parenting, this all seems to make good sense.

However, the particular system of Shared Parental Leave that was introduced in the UK has done little to shift the dial in practice, in terms of who does what.  It does not come with a realistic level of wage replacement, nor does it represent a means whereby fathers have their own entitlement to parental leave; rather it is a method for women to transfer leave to their partners during the first year of their child’s lives, after they have used up the initial weeks of non-transferable maternity leave. The government estimated that the policy would be taken up by 2-8% of parents, and evidence collected since, suggests that even this figure may have been optimistic.  As the Committee’s report sums up: ‘The Government’s objective is for mothers and fathers to share the task of caring for their children more equally. The current shared parental leave policy will not achieve this on a large scale, as the Government’s own estimates of take-up show’.

In order to address the low take-up issue, the Government has embarked on a new campaign, ‘share the joy‘ which publicises Shared Parental Leave, showing couples who have used it, talking up the benefits of both parents being able to work and to take leave during their baby’s first year.  But without higher levels of pay for Shared Parental Leave, it is hard to see how raising awareness will increase the attractiveness of the package.  And while, of course, caring for babies and children can often be joyful and rewarding, what many parents are looking for is a policy which will enable then to share the load of meals, laundry, appointments as well as the joys of parenting.  As today’s report says, ‘[the] campaign to promote shared parental leave is welcome, but does not constitute a plan of action for achieving wider societal change.

If we’ve learnt anything from other countries, it is that getting to that point takes time.  The ‘latte papas’, the much-vaunted buggy pushers of Sweden’s urban landscape, only reached a critical mass because of decades of policy tweaking. Sweden first changed the law regarding leave in 1974, when maternity leave was changed to parental leave, for which both mothers and fathers were eligible.  However, there was an option for men to sign over their parental leave to their partners – in 1994 it was discovered that most did so, meaning that only 10% of parental leave days were actually used by men.  In order to attain the gender equality envisaged by the original policy, the government introduced a ‘daddy quota’ of 30 days leave in 1994.  If fathers didn’t use this quota, the month of leave was lost from the couple’s total entitlement.  This policy had immediate impact on fathers’ participation in early parenting, and dedicated leave for fathers spread as a policy throughout Scandinavia.  In the intervening years, the amount of leave for men has been increased repeatedly, and the Nordic countries regularly top international indices measuring both gender equality and happiness, or life satisfaction (incidentally, today is also the International Day of Happiness, and the Finns top the UN’s index this year).

At the end of last year the Telegraph reported that the Swedish government was looking to increase their ‘daddy quota’ to 5 months, to further enhance gender equality.  Perhaps a test of how embedded such policies have become, is that in the early days of parental leave in Sweden, sceptics complained that men just used their days to go elk hunting;  now in the West of Sweden where an elk hunting week is an annual tradition, they are looking change the rules for subsidised childcare to mean that parents can have an ‘elk days’ entitlement, without their partners having to take holiday to accommodate the hunt ….

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Nordic experience of dedicated leave for fathers has long been cited as a preferred solution to the problem of gender imbalances in take-up of parental leave.  Today’s report goes so far as to recommend that the government considers replacing the current system of Shared Parental Leave with a Nordic-style independent entitlement for fathers.  The Women and Equalities Committee suggests a 12-week period of paternal leave, with the first four weeks paid at a capped wage replacement rate, and the rest at statutory levels.  While the costs of such a scheme are not inconsiderable, there is scope for them to be balanced by greater participation in the workforce by mothers.  There are still plenty of barriers to the success of such a policy – not least the slowness of government machinery.  Elsewhere in the report there are recommendations related to flexible working which are not slated for review until 2019, and Brexit will keep everyone busy at least until then.  There are also wider barriers, in the shape of prevailing workplace culture, and the long reach of gender stereotypes. But as the Swedish experience shows, we might be getting somewhere with this type of policy in 20 years’ time.  Springing in to action? Maybe not, but perhaps, at last, a kickstart.

 

 

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David Davis’s Imagination (with apologies to Willy Wonka)

6 Dec

Hold a referendum

Make a wish

Count to three….

 

Come with me

And you’ll be

In a world of

Pure imagination

Take a look

And you’ll see

Into my imagination

 

We’ll begin

With some spin

Traveling in

The Brexit of my creation

What we’ll see

Will defy

Any quantitative explanation

 

If you want to view sectoral impact

Simply look around and view it

Anything you want to, do it

Wanta change the rules?

There’s nothing

To it

 

There is no

Brexit I know

To compare with

My imagination

Living there

You’ll be free

If you truly wish to be

 

If you want to view sectoral impact

Simply look around and view it

Anything you want to, do it

Wanta change the rules?

There’s nothing

To it

 

There is no

Brexit I know

To compare with

My imagination

Living there

You’ll be free

If you truly

Wish to be

 

 

Ushering in change…

18 Nov

It’s hard to think of an instance where shutting a door in a woman’s face represents progress, but in this week’s appointment of the first female Black Rod, we have one.  Every year Black Rod comes to public attention as part of the ceremony attached to the presentation of the Queen’s Speech to Parliament.  In accordance with tradition – representing the independence of the Commons from the monarchy – Black Rod arrives at the doors to the House of Commons, and is symbolically snubbed: the door is slammed shut, and Black Rod must knock three times with a lion-topped, ebony staff, in order for the door to be opened. MPs then accept the invitation to move to the House of Lords and hear the speech.

But the job has a wider remit than that.  Black Rod is essentially a kind of CEO of the House of Lords, and has the accompanying title of ‘Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’. As the first woman to occupy the role in over 650 years, Sarah Clarke is to be styled ‘Lady Usher’ when she takes up her post early next year.  Historically, Black Rod has often been a military man, as was the current incumbent, David Leakey. Sarah Clarke’s background is more one of military precision – the kind required to organise Wimbledon, or to be a major cog in putting on the London Olympics.  Such a background seems suitable as it involves dealing with the needs of Royals, high-status professionals, and the public.  Among the many duties of Black Rod, is responsibility for the royal areas of parliament, such as the robing room, and organising the State visits of foreign luminaries.  Black Rod also has a meaty security portfolio, including major incident response and contingency planning, should the House of Lords become unusable.  As Big Ben stands covered in controversy-generating scaffolding, and the plans for renovation of parliament remain undecided and yet urgently required, this might become a more high-profile aspect of the job.

There are those who might say that Black Rod represents exactly the kind of anachronistic flummery Britain could well do without. But as the Republic seems some way off, and we have a surfeit of constitutional issues to resolve over the next few years as the UK leaves the EU, perhaps there is a little consolation in knowing that Black Rod’s duty of ‘fostering diversity and inclusion’ in the House of Lords will at last be performed by a woman…

Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.

 

*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

A Wonky Valentine

13 Feb

Inspired by the likes of #AcademicValentine I thought it might be time for a policy analyst’s version:

 

Labour is Red

Tories are blue

You should be briefing

And I should be too

 

Lib Dems are Amber

SNP Yellow

Let’s brief them all

Partisanship’s not mellow

 

Greens are self-evident

Purple is UKIP

If we brief the whole House

My heartbeat will skip *

 

 

*I know Welsh and NI

Come in many a shade

And Independents on charts

are usually greyed

And two seats are vacant-

Case yet to be made;

But I’m also aware

Some may find details boring

You could be a wonk’s Valentine

If not currently snoring ….

 

 

Does it matter what kind of man is on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

14 Dec

Last year I wrote a blog which asked ‘Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Committee?’, and I concluded that it probably did.  While it is entirely appropriate that the majority of members of the committee are women, the absence of senior male MPs could be construed as indicating that powerful parliamentarians are not much interested in women and equalities issues.  And there could have been a danger that those on the committee might be left to get on with ‘their’ business, apart from issues widely considered to be more part of the political mainstream.

Since then, following the General Election, a second man joined the Committee. More recently, The Good Parliament report was published, looking at how to make parliament more representative, diverse and inclusive. Recommendations included making single gender committees prohibited, and that issues of representativeness be borne in mind in Select Committee membership. These recommendations make a useful counterbalance to the fact that the most prestigious committees tend to be overwhelmingly male, and, that at one point, the House of Commons ended up with a Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport which was entirely white and male.

Fast forward to the news that has just emerged that Philip Davies, an MP with a record as an ‘anti-feminist’, has been elected unopposed as a new member of the Women and Equalities Committee.  Is this a problem? It could be, as he pronounced on the Daily Politics today that he saw his position as similar to UKIP members sitting in the European Parliament – they disagree with everything the institution stands for, but are there to hold it to account.  For a Committee whose purpose is to hold government to account on issues concerning women and equality, it seems odd to join in order to challenge its raison d’etre.  Davies has asserted that it should be called the ‘Equalities Committee’, dropping the reference to women altogether.  This indicates he thinks that gender equality has been achieved, which, given the continuing lack of equal political representation or equal pay, and the continuing unequal share of unpaid and caring labour – to mention just a few persistent gender issues – is a view which flies in the face of everyday evidence. Perhaps even more bothersome, though, is the fact that no-one stood against him to fill the vacant place.  This would suggest that the Conservatives have attached little importance to membership of the Women and Equalities Committee, or to wider perceptions of such an unconventional candidacy.  You might have thought that they would have produced a candidate who believes that the Committee needs to exist, and that women’s voices should be heard. On the anniversary of the day women voted for the first time, and just when women have reached the 30% mark among MPs in parliament, you would have thought that what the politicos call the ‘optics’ would matter.

Representation, Parliament and Brexit

24 Jul

There’s been a kind of perfect storm of issues to do with representation in the last couple of months – what with the male-heavy campaigns for Leave and Remain in the EU referendum; the result which called it for Brexit, and the accompanying discussion around distance between political elites and ordinary people; and assessment of the impact of our new, second female Prime Minister.  Both major political parties have also been embroiled in leadership contests which have presented different approaches to the question of representation of party membership, and parliamentary representation of the electorate.

Into this maelstrom arrives a new report by Professor Sarah Childs, ‘The Good Parliament’, which addresses how the institution may become more diverse and inclusive.  It is an opportune moment to consider representation in Parliament: not only is it the centenary of the Acts which extended voting rights to working-class men and the first women, but the need to refurbish our Parliament buildings presents a rare chance to experiment with physical and procedural infrastructure. These factors, along with the support of the Speaker, who has founded a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to carry ideas forward, mean that there is a unique opportunity to potentially transform Parliament into an institution which more closely represents the society it serves.  With only 29% of MPs currently female, and only 6% drawn from minority ethnic backgrounds, this is surely overdue; and the long decline in numbers of parliamentarians drawn from working-class backgrounds also needs to be addressed.  While the report does not deal with the EU referendum, it seems to me that it has added relevance because of it.  In the wake of evidence that the Brexit vote was carried by people living in former industrial heartlands of the UK, and in more deprived communities, working-class representation in politics could hardly be higher on the agenda.

The report looks at how diversity could be strengthened throughout Parliament’s work and practices. This includes measures to improve the family-friendliness of parliament – involving policies around maternity, paternity and parental leave, more flexibility in voting arrangements, and the headline-grabbing recommendation that breastfeeding should be better accommodated.  As Jo Swinson has already pointed out, the media focus on breastfeeding, which is a relatively minor recommendation in the report, says a lot about how far we have to go in discussions of diversity, especially as it applies to women in public life.

Childs highlights the importance of better representativeness in Select Committees, the parliamentary bodies which hold government to account.  She says that in 2016 it is ‘undesirable’ that some Committees are highly skewed in terms of gender in their membership.  This matters, because many of the Committees considered most important or prestigious, e.g. Foreign Affairs, are disproportionately male.  Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee initially contained only one man, and now has two male MPs among its members.  The report mentions the blog I wrote last year, which remarked that this committee is also novice-heavy and that it would be good to think that ‘women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men’.  The Good Parliament recommends that single gender Select Committees are prohibited, and that parties become more ‘mindful of wider representativeness’ in electing committee members.  This awareness of representativeness extends to committee witnesses as well – the experts invited to contribute should also be more diverse.

During the referendum debate, Michael Gove made the now notorious comment that we’ve ‘had enough of experts’; there’s been a strong suggestion that this view may have gained traction because ‘experts’ are so often the ‘usual suspects’: white, older men.  By looking beyond this group, the valuable work of many female and non-white professionals and academics would be recognised and reflected back to us all.

Representativeness also matters in media – the lens through which we receive information about politics and Parliament.  Lobby journalism remains even more male-dominated than other areas, and Childs advocates that Parliament works towards a situation where monitoring ensures that neither men nor women drop below 40% of lobby pass recipients.  This move would potentially encourage more diverse reportage, and help insure against any tendency towards ‘groupthink’ in political coverage.

As the dust begins to settle on the turbulent last month in British politics, Childs’ report should be part of the landscape in which we discuss post-referendum Britain. The ministers appointed to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – the new departments central to implementing  Brexit – are exclusively male. As we gear up to make the best of post-Brexit Britain we should ensure that diverse voices are heard.  There is a Select Committee for every government department – hopefully the ones for DEEU and DIT will not hear exclusively from white men of a certain class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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