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Who Will Gain?

“The traditional family … is losing the monopoly it had for so long.”

Professor Ulrich Beck, Munich University

Beck’s insight into the ‘post-familial family’ could reasonably be the mantra with which the coalition government heralds its parental leave reforms. I have just one query: who will gain?

The new system, to come into effect in 2015, will allow a new mother to trigger flexible leave at any point after the first two weeks’ recovery period. Parents will be able to share the remaining weeks between them however they choose.

This flexibility is designed to ‘make life easier’ for millions of working families. It fails, however, to address the needs of the families who struggle most after the birth of a child. Swedish statistics show that parental separation is overwhelmingly the most significant driver into child poverty, and Stephen P. Jenkins reports that half of all single parents are in poverty. What can these reforms do for single parents who are desperately trying to balance work with the needs of their child? Absolutely nothing. No amount of reform to shared paternal leave could have any effect on the lives of these single parents. The changes will leave many of the poorest in the UK without relief from the financial difficulties of raising their children.

Nevertheless, many proponents of gender equality will still see this change as a victory. Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, was confident that it would “start to challenge employers’ discrimination” against working women. Their recently published statistics reported that women still earn 14.9% less on average than men for the same job. But will the reforms radically challenge this bias? If employers do discriminate against hiring women because of their potential maternity leave (this being the only type of discrimination the reforms can hope to alleviate), then are they really likely to abandon these prejudices just because there might be a father around to ease the burden?

The country’s rate of divorce makes the presence of a father unpredictable at best, and it is not even clear how easy it will be for employers to refuse flexible working hours for fathers. Even the simple fact that men cannot physically bear children means that the working life of a woman will never be completely unaffected by her desire to raise a family. Rightly or wrongly, the possibility that a female employee will have to take full maternity leave will remain a significant factor in the eyes of the employer.

In principle, I cannot deny the value of these reforms. A move towards freedom of the individual is undoubtedly a move towards the good. However, as John Walker (national chairman for the Federation of Small Businesses) affirms:

“Allowing chunks of maternity and paternity leave of as little as one week…will place a disproportionate strain on small firms and will be very complicated to administer.”

It is vital, then, that the benefits of such a change outweigh this additional strain. The coalition’s parental leave reforms do not appear to stand up to pragmatic scrutiny. I would suggest that these decisions are a well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless, reaction to the fight over childcare cuts. Shadow women’s minister Yvette Cooper calls for Clegg and Cameron to ‘wake up to the real financial pressures most working families face’, and I, for one, am inclined to agree with her.

BY: David Salisbury