Who wants six months’ paternity leave (unpaid)?

Not mums, not dads - but the government is pushing it anyway.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The UK government wants to offer six months’ unpaid paternity leave to new fathers (1). Well, fine – but who’s going to take it? For most individuals, the thought of six months without pay is bad enough without the prospect of domestic toil and a screaming baby. Men aren’t on the streets clamouring for the right to change nappies, and women aren’t storming Parliament demanding the right to earn the family wage while their husbands wash bottles for nothing.

So why has the government even bothered offering this ‘right’ that few couples will want to exercise? Perhaps because, as with every new parenting initiative, the government is more keen to promote a moral message than it is to provide practical assistance with the frustrating, bank-breaking, inconvenient chaos of raising a young family when both parents are working.

The message of this proposed new paternity leave right is that It Is Right to expect fathers to play a hands-on role in raising their new baby. Or, as one news report succinctly puts it: ‘Ministers regard the move as central to making fathers feel more responsible for the upbringing of their children. They believe it also reflects the importance of parents being present in the crucial first stages of their child’s life.’ (2)

Now, it is hard to be opposed to an initiative that gives working couples greater choice about who looks after their children. But it is harder to support a tokenistic, impractical initiative which appears to have the sole aim of ‘making fathers feel more responsible’, by encouraging them to put their careers on hold for six months while they get their hands dirty in the nursery. And it comes as little surprise that the grand plan of six months’ unpaid paternity leave has been met with little enthusiasm across the board.

The British Chambers of Commerce has, quite predictably, warned that six months’ paternity leave would mean an ‘administrative nightmare’ that could cripple small businesses (3). On the other side of the employment rights fence, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has issued a terse statement to the effect that paternity leave means little if it is not accompanied by payment, concluding: ‘We hope the government hasn’t closed the door to payment of leave for fathers, and that it seizes this opportunity to halt the spread of the most unequal parenting arrangements in Europe.’ (4) The EOC must be doubly cross, given that the news about unpaid paternity leave was released on the same day as new research by the EOC claimed that a ‘social revolution’ is taking place across the UK, with fathers wanting to be more involved with looking after their children.

The EOC was clearly expecting the government to pursue its original idea, floated last year, of ‘Transferable Maternity Leave’ – whereby a mother could transfer a proportion of her 52-week statutory maternity leave to the father. Attitudes towards such an initiative featured heavily in the EOC’s new research (5), which found that both mothers and fathers of young children were broadly in favour (although, in an interesting sign of our ‘me’ culture, many mothers said they would be reluctant to give up some of their own maternity leave to their partner). However, the government has now apparently decided that transferring maternity leave is legally ‘unworkable’, and opted for a less creative course – which happens to be the very thing that, according to the EOC’s research, nobody wants at all.

When mothers and fathers were asked about the current paternity leave arrangements – two weeks at a statutory rate of £106 per week – four out of five thought the level of pay was too low (indeed, who wouldn’t think that?). Only one quarter of men said that they would have taken paternity leave at this rate, and only 12 per cent actually did take leave at an entirely statutory rate. So it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to see that the take-up of six months’ unpaid leave would be minimal, if it happened at all. ‘Just four per cent of parents take up the current unpaid parental leave available to both parents in their child’s first years so new unpaid paternity leave would be just as ineffective‘, says the EOC’s statement.

More interesting, however, was the ambiguity with which mothers and fathers continue to see paternity leave at all. The mothers in the EOC’s study took an average of seven months’ maternity leave. But when asked whether they felt the current situation of two weeks’ paternity leave was too short, only 66 per cent agreed. That’s more than the men, though, of whom only 53 per cent thought that two weeks was too short. At the same time, seven out of 10 fathers said they would like to be more involved in childcare – but less than half of mothers (48 per cent) agreed that they would like them to be.

‘EOC research shows that parents want choice about how they share the care of their children – and paid leave is an important part of that choice’, argues the EOC (6). But what its own research seems to demonstrate is rather that people are quite accepting of the traditional set-up where Mum stays home with the new baby for the first few months and Dad carries on working and earning, and that there is a certain resistance to the notion that this framework should be changed.

So why does the government persist in cajoling men and women to think differently about how they share the childcare, and chivvy men into the home while chivvying women into work? Much of this is to do with its distrust of men, and its control freakery when it comes to aspects of everyday life. No attempt is made to hide the very New Labour prejudice that men would be better if they were more like women, and that fathers would be better if they were more like mothers. To this end, men are continually implored to worry less about masculine pursuits like career and salary level and focus more on nurturing, caring and talking things through. It’s an insult, of course, and entirely misplaced. Men can be many things to their wives and children, but they cannot be women, or mothers.

The government’s 10-year strategy for childcare, published in 2004, laid out in extraordinary detail what the government thinks is the optimal way of raising babies (7). This starts with the ideal of one-to-one care in the first year, meaning the mother for the first six months so that she can breastfeed, notching up small amounts of appropriately educational childcare through the early years. This sits rather uneasily with the government’s obsession with getting everybody into work, and even less easily with the paltry availability of flexible, affordable, quality childcare. (EOC figures show that there are four children for every full-time childcare place.) (8)

So what do we get by way of solution? More and more attempts to control the private decisions parents make about how they juggle the work/children problem, presented in the name of ‘employment rights’. This is an insult too, to all those parents who don’t have the luxury of ideal childcare solutions – they just need to get childcare so they can get back to work.

But perhaps the biggest motivating factor behind the government’s latest cheapskate paternity leave scheme is that it believes its own propaganda. It really does seem to believe that women get a great deal through staying home with the baby for six months on £100 per week, that women should be able to stay home for three extra months in fact, and that fathers should be able to share in this blessed experience. Whereas the reality is simple: we do not have a choice.

Yes, having a baby is lovely; but the reason why women take maternity leave is because they are knackered from the pregnancy, they are physically bound to the child, and unless you can afford a nanny it is impossible to get childcare for the first three months, and pretty difficult until your child has reached six months. So you take your time out of work, you enjoy your child, and you make the best of it. But the demands of a baby and the mundanity of daily domestic chores is no picnic, and the inevitable dive in your immediate career opportunities is a hard thing to swallow when, up until that point, you’ve been on the same playing field as everything else.

Having a baby is lovely – for fathers and mothers equally, though in different ways. And if there was a genuine choice on offer, more fathers and mothers may make the choice to stay home with their children for that little bit longer. But to pretend that that choice exists, and that men and women are simply failing to share it in the right way, is the biggest insult of all.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today