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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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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.

Happy Birthday Shared Parental Leave

5 Apr

Happy Birthday to you

Daddies can take leave too

But you don’t replace their wages

So not many do

 

Happy Birthday to you

Mummies are employed too

But they have to give Dads their leave

So they can parent à deux

 

Happy birthday to you

Time to see culture change through

But we haven’t gone Nordic

No daddy months, boo hoo

 

Happy Birthday to you

A step the right way it’s true

But I’m getting impatient

For gender equality, aren’t you?

 

 

 

 

Hard-working families or hard work in families?

11 Jan

We all know how much the government loves ‘hard-working families’ – during the election campaign you could place the phrase on your buzzword bingo card and be sure to contribute to a full house most days. And in the months since, with the spending review and the ongoing austerity programme, few days go by without reference to hard-working families, who are ‘doing the right thing’ and being rewarded for it with plaudits and ‘incentives’ in policies.

As for family and relationship support, David Cameron has made a speech today about enhanced funding for counselling for couples, and the launch of a more universal provision of parenting classes. He says that parenting is ‘the most important job we’ll ever have’ – and yet the work that goes on inside families – which means that our children and other loved ones are fed, clothed, nurtured, and supported to be useful members of society in their turn – does not seem to be the main concern here. There’s a bit of talk about discipline and control of behaviour, but the Prime Minister’s focus appears to be primarily economic – he goes on to say that:

‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one. Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together. That’s why strengthening families is at the heart of our agenda.’

So families are front and centre because they are a defence against poverty, not because functioning relationships are valuable in themselves? The cynic might say that families are to be buttressed piecemeal, to deal better with the shrinkage in public services which have been deeply cut …

It’s striking that the language around families has become so professionalised – parenting is a ‘job’ encompassing skills or services – ‘welfare, education and counselling’ – the word ‘care’ does not seem to have much prominence here. And yet caring is at the heart of the hard work that goes on inside families, it’s what keeps everybody going, and what enables people to go out into the world and do other useful things. You cannot resign from parenthood – nor are you promoted for doing it well. So it’s not a typical job at all. It’s about building and sustaining relationships over time. Something that caring may have in common with jobs in the labour market is that it’s a lot easier to put up with the bad days if you have enough money. Poverty makes the strains of caring more difficult to bear, and caring needs to be accommodated alongside paid work. If all the talk around families is about jobs, caring gets overlooked. That’s ironic, as many would say it’s what makes being in families worthwhile.

A (wonky) Christmas Cracker

18 Dec

Everyone loves a Christmas cracker – what could be better than a gift, a hat and a joke to share with your loved ones? So in the festive spirit I’ve imagined a wonky cracker of 2015, with contents from the world of gender and policy this year …..

The Gift:

splgift

Like all the best cracker gifts, Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is novel and shiny and looks great, but turns out to be a bit less robust than you first thought. The idea is great, but not enough has been spent on it, so its appeal is somewhat limited. FromApril this year, mothers have been able to transfer up to 50 weeks of leave to fathers, but the leave is only paid at a very low rate, so that not many families would find it affordable. The government estimates that only 2-8% of families will take the option up, while the rest look wistfully to Scandinavia where there are ‘daddy months’ of leave dedicated for fathers’ use only, and paid at a decent rate. The Nordic countries also have affordable, universal childcare – something which even the pledge of 30 hours free childcare for working parents in the UK cannot match. So if we do want more gender equality in care we’ll have to devote some funds for a proper present under the tree in future….

 

The Hat:

For the wonky Christmas cracker 2015, the only party hat is the hard hat, as worn by George Osborne on site trips during the election, and beyond. His decisions influence the spending, saving and borrowing of all of us. (You can tell he really likes it as the hard hat appears in cartoon form on his Christmas card).

painthardhat

There is an important gender dimension here too, as many argue that austerity measures applied to benefits and public services affect women most, due to lower earnings and greater caring responsibilities.

 

The Joke:

A mainstay of the Christmas cracker is the silly joke, recently updated for more modern society here. Regular readers will know of my interest in family policy, so from the new list, here’s a reminder that there have always been unconventional families, and refugees in search of shelter:.

          xmasjoke

 Merry Christmas and a Peace and Goodwill to all men and women!

 

 

 

 

 

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