Nick Clegg has today announced a new change to the law which will allow couples to share maternity leave. The plans will come into force in April and will allow fathers to use their partner's unused leave if she returns to work early.
In a speech to the Demos think tank, Clegg set out proposals designed to ensure that parents are "empowered" and "supported". Concentrating on the need to further social mobility, he insisted that "what we are doing [will] help the majority of parents – giving them much more opportunity to balance work and home...I want to pay particular attention to flexible working and shared parental leave...this Government made clear that our primary social policy objective is to improve social mobility. In particular, intergenerational social mobility [which is] a more complex concept of fairness than has been prevalent in policy making in recent years. Income is, of course, important but it doesn’t tell you everything about a person’s life chances, or the life chances of their children. And you simply cannot overestimate the role that parents play in that."
Clegg set out a liberal agenda for empowering parents whose likely effects include tackling poverty, relieving the financial pressure on families and promoting fairness. While stating that he was offering "no magic wand solutions", he criticised the current rules as "Edwardian" and discriminatory: "when a child is born, men are still only entitled to a paltry two weeks of paternity leave. These rules patronize women and marginalise men. They're based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners...[which] has no place in 21st Century Britain. Women suffer. Mothers are expected to take on the vast bulk of childcare themselves. If they don't, they very often feel judged. If they do, they worry about being penalised at work. So it's no surprise that many working women feel that they can't win. Children suffer, too often missing out on time with their fathers. Time that is desperately important to their development."
All this is correct. Labour, to its credit, also proposed similar changes when in government. But, as Nick Clegg highlighted, we must go further than an approach aimed merely at reducing gender inequalities and providing increased flexibility for parents. If implemented carefully, these proposals have the potential to go some way in dealing with the complex social problems of deprivation and poverty.
It is vital for fathers to be given more time off to spend with their children, but this not only requires a change in the law but a change in culture. Men should be actively encouraged to become more involved in their children's early development and a change in parental leave arrangements will be a step in the right direction. But these proposals will only have the desired outcome if there is a corresponding change in attitude among men towards their roles as fathers. Attitudes and perceptions towards gender and parental roles are naturally evolving, but the one weakness in Nick Clegg's speech was his failure to spell out how he would encourage men to take advantage of the new arrangements or how the government proposed to assist businesses to adjust to them.
However, Clegg's speech spelled out a welcome direction from the government which will help create a more liberal society in which parents can be set free from the current rigid and patronising rules.