Last month I blogged about paternity leave. To my amazement my blog came to the attention of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and I was asked if I’d host a live twitter Q&A with the Employment Relations Minister Jo Swinson. It seemed like a great opportunity and I happily accepted.
The Q&A took place on the day the Children and Families Bill was published. The Bill covers a huge range of issues, including three significant measures designed to give families of the future greater flexibility in the early days following birth. These measures should also help men to become more involved as fathers.
It was these three areas the Q&A focused on. In summary, these measures are:
- The introduction of paid, parental leave. From 2015 parents will receive one year’s shared parental leave following the birth of a child. It will be up to mum and dad how they take this leave; they could do six months each, the mum take nine months, the dad three and so on.
- Making it easier to request flexible working.
- Giving fathers the legal right to attend two ante-natal appointments (IE 12 and 20 week baby scans), albeit on an unpaid basis.
When this final point came to my attention I had to laugh. It had never occurred to me that men didn’t have the right to attend ante-natal appointments. Whenever I’ve accompanied my wife to baby scans I’ve just told my bosses I had a medical appointment to attend and gone with her. Little did I realise I was taking liberties! That said, I’m one of the lucky ones and have been blessed with understanding, flexible employers. Many men aren’t so lucky and this change in the law will be a great help.
The Q&A itself went very well. Lots of people had contacted me beforehand and posed questions they wanted me to ask the Minister. A summary and link to the transcript can be found here
As an aside, it was refreshing to see a Government Minister embracing social media in this way and taking questions posed by real parents. I hope this is a trend that continues as it removes politicians from their ivory tower and makes them accessible. I was told the Minister thoroughly enjoyed the session and there was nothing she refused to answer, despite facing some tough questions.
As for the measures in the Bill, will they achieve much? They are an enormous step in the right direction and they go a long way to dealing with the sexist argument about “never employing a woman of fertile age” because the father could exercise his right to take the parental leave. There are, however, a couple of weak areas. The most obvious weakness being there is no provision for the self-employed; they just won’t get paid parental leave.
Breast feeding women are also at a potential disadvantage. The Bill will not force employers to provide special facilities so they can express milk and store it in the workplace.
I’ll put myself on thin ice and say that I have every sympathy with this argument but I don’t think it’s straightforward. I can see that placing such an obligation on employers could create all manner of complications. For instance, would the employer be legally liable if the milk became contaminated while stored on their premises? How would other employees react having a colleague that regularly took time off during the day to can express milk?
That said, there is a very compelling counter argument. Employers of all sizes go out their way to accommodate smokers. Smokers might have been relegated to the car park in recent years, but I’ve seen them provided with very expensive shelters so they can take time away from their work station to feed their nicotine addiction. It seems very wrong that breast feeding women are lower down the food chain than smokers. Despite the complications, there must be some way to enable women to return to work and continue breast feeding.
Putting these concerns aside, the Children and Families Bill has the potential to help the families of the future enormously. I think the majority will benefit from the increased flexibility and us fathers will have greater scope to get involved in those very important early days. The legislation might not be perfect, but it does recognise the changes going on in society and will give a greater number of us dads the chance to prove we are equally as good at childcare as the mums.