“Other than breast-feeding, I’ve yet to find something that dads aren’t able to do!”
An exclusive interview with Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire, UK employment minister – and one of the architects of the new Shared Parental Leave legislation.
Scottish MP Jo Swinson is celebrating two big parenting milestones this summer. In July her 9-month old son Andrew made political history by becoming the first baby ever to go through the Parliamentary voting lobby – carried, unexpectedly, by his father.
But for Swinson, the sight of her husband and fellow Lib Dem MP Duncan Hames being so publicly paternal was a reminder of an even bigger milestone: that all children conceived from this summer onward can expect dads to be move involved than ever before – thanks to flexible new Shared Parental Leave legislation she helped to draft.
As minister for Employment at the department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the 34-year-old Scot was one of the architects of the new system. It affects all babies born from 5th April 2015 and allows couples to decide how to split their entitlement of 50 weeks leave between them. And after the sleepless nights, juggled feeding duties, and parliamentary buggy runs of the past year, Jo Swinson has never been more aware of how useful that will be.
Speaking to Fathers Network Scotland on the eve of a tour of her East Dunbartonshire constituency, she discusses details of the new legislation, her hopes for a change in parenting culture, and her sympathy for lone dads trying to fit in at “mother and toddler” groups…
FNS: Your husband Duncan Hames recently became the first MP to carry a baby – your son Andrew – through the voting lobby. It was a bold statement – why did you decide that he would be the one to make it rather than you?
JS: Well, like many things in parenting, it wasn’t necessarily planned! It was an unexpected vote – I was actually in the House of Commons chamber for a timetabling motion for a bill that I’m leading on. Duncan had been with Andrew getting him ready because we thought we were going to be able to head off without there being a vote – so he had him strapped in to the baby carrier when the division bell went. And so it was really just the way that it panned out!
But actually with hindsight we were both happy that it was Duncan who took Andrew through first because it made a really important point about how vital fathers are in the upbringing of their children from the earliest point. It’s often a role that gets overlooked – certainly that had been Duncan’s experience in Parliament. Because with pregnancy, it is very visible when you become a mother whereas it’s not when you become a father. With a number of people he only found out that they were dads when people knew that I was pregnant – and then they came up to him and started chatting to him about parenting.
So you’ve had mostly positive feedback from Andrew’s political debut?
Surprisingly enough, it was quite controversial when it was floated as an idea earlier this year. As little as three years ago my colleague Jenny Willott [Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central] really fought hard to be able to take her son Toby through the lobby when he was little and she never managed to be allowed to do so. So opinions really were quite hardened against this and yet actually now that it’s happened everybody seems to think: well what was the fuss about? It’s not a massive problem, it’s only a baby after all! And people have been quite lovely – I think in the lobby people quite enjoyed seeing Andrew strapped to Duncan. I think Andrew was a bit less impressed!
Let’s talk about this huge change in the law that’s coming next year. We’ve had Additional Paternity Leave for a while [allowing fathers to take up to 26 weeks on request when the mother has gone back to work] and the take-up’s been quite small for that. Are you confident that Shared Parental Leave will be different?
I definitely want it to be different, and there are reasons why it is much more flexible and therefore useful to couples than Additional Paternity Leave, which could only kick in once the baby was six months old, and then had to transfer leave in a huge block to the father, so that mother couldn’t then have any afterwards. And you couldn’t be taking it at the same time.
Whereas now, if dads think that two weeks might be too short in terms of paternity leave, one way you could use shared parental leave very easily is to have few extra weeks altogether as a family at the beginning. I think that additional flexibility is going to make it much more attractive to use in a wider range of circumstances.
But even in our impact assessments we’re predicting that only 2-8 per cent of couples who are eligible might take this up in the initial stages. I do think it will be something which grows in popularity in time, in the same way that when paternity leave came in, not all dads would take it. Still not all dads do, but a much higher proportion do.
Remember, it’s only a couple of generations ago that very few men were present at the birth of their child and now that is something which is very common indeed. So these kind of societal cultural changes sometimes take a while – but I think that by changing the legislation you also provide a catalyst to help that change along the way.
But there are definitely cultural barriers and you’ll probably have found this as a dad. If you just look at the offers when you want to take your children to the libraries, classes and so on – Mother and Baby, Mother and Toddler – all of those things unintentionally can be quite exclusive to dads who are taking on those roles. Again, often public services are looking for one primary carer on a form when you’re filling it in – who’s the person we should ring? Well actually, if you’re sharing parenting it might not always be the same parent. You might sometimes ring one parent, sometimes ring another. I think there are too many things in society which set as a default that the mum becomes the point of contact and we need to look at trying to change that cultural background as well.
And is there a hope in the back of your mind that we might one day go as far as Sweden – where fathers have a set allocation of leave and lose it if they don’t take it?
Absolutely. It’s no secret that this is something which actually within government Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems pushed very hard for but it wasn’t something we were able to get agreement on with our Conservative coalition colleagues. So we got the shared parental leave, which is great, but we didn’t get absolutely everything we wanted in this package which would have included the use-it-or-lose-it. We have got a commitment to a review of the shared parental leave policy with a view to having use-it-or-lose-it leave for dads in particular if the take up isn’t as high as we would like, because I think that you do need to really incentivise and encourage dads to do this.
Aren’t some of the Tories worried about feedback from business, which seems to suggest that it’s going to be complex to administer?
Business doesn’t like change. They have to have time to familiarise themselves with it, which I understand. Actually business is pretty supportive of the shared parental leave package that we have, and quite rightly so, because actually it means that more mothers will end up back in the workplace earlier – and it therefore ought to be easier for them to manage.
Now, if you’re a business that only employs men, you may suddenly think: “Oh my goodness this is going to have an impact on my business!” But if you’re a business that employs lots of women you think: “Great, I might get some of my talented women back to work a bit earlier than I would have before!” So there will be some firms that perhaps lose out and some that gain from it. But because it can be a more flexible arrangement, it can be tailored to help the family but also the employer.
Is there going to be support to help smaller organisations in Scotland to embrace this new legislation?
Absolutely. There’s guidance on the website – www.gov.uk/sharedparentalleave – that individuals and also employers can access, tailored specifically for them. We’ve really focused on trying to make it as simple and straightforward as possible. We’re not requiring employers to speak to the employer of the partner, for example, so that both mum and dad will fill in a really simple form that they’ll both sign, which is what goes to their employers.
And the other advantage for employers is that if you want to use shared parental leave you have to signal earlier when you’re going to end your maternity leave – for example, “I’m going to take eight months, and the remaining four months we’re going to use as shared parental leave so my partner can take some of it just shortly after the birth” – which means you know from a much earlier stage how it’s going to work.
And that prompts conversations. I think one of the difficulties that businesses often have is that they feel they can’t really ask what are your intentions about when you might want to come back to work, you know, what are you thinking? But this enables them to have the conversation – not on an absolutely hard and binding basis but at least to have a discussion about what they’re thinking so that both sides can then start to plan a bit better how to accommodate maternity cover or paternity cover within the workplace.
Is there anything you feel Fathers Network Scotland and other organisations can do to help accelerate the take up of shared parental leave?
Absolutely. What I think is really important is for dads to see other dads doing it, so that it becomes much more of a normal thing. So you’re trying to create this community where people feel that being a really involved dad is not only something that they want but which lots of other dads are doing too. So they’re not turning up to another rhyme-time event where they’re the only dad in the room and feeling slightly strange!
I go along to these things and I’m often looking and thinking: how many blokes are here? And Duncan talks to me about his experience of it – it’s easy as a mum to forget that things are set up for you and everybody expects you and is accommodating. People know when I’ve had a baby four months ago that there’ll be things I have to juggle in my life, but somehow people in Duncan’s working life, even though they know he had a baby four months ago, they say: “Yeah, but that was four months ago!” They don’t make any accommodation – they’re not thinking: “Yeah, but how much sleep has he had?” So I think that the more that dads can be vocal about it, the better.
Yet in Scotland I think only six percent of dads work part time, and less than one per cent take Extended Paternity Leave – so how can we change this working culture?
I suspect that a lot of these cultural issues are even more embedded in a Scottish working culture. It is difficult, and it’s tied in to presenteeism in working culture which is more generally a problem. It suggests that working really long hours and specifically being there is what’s important, when actually much more flexible type of work – where you use technology so that you’re doing some work at home when you’ve finished bath time or whatever – that’s where a lot of organisations are moving to. But it’s about accelerating that, because then you can make sure it works in around the rest of life much more easily. But the culture of you’ve got to be in the office to be doing the work is difficult to shift.
I think so many dads don’t feel like they can say it. I remember a really interesting conversation I had while promoting the women on boards agenda. We had lots of round table events and one of those senior women said that when they’d got more women on their board it suddenly meant that the men round the table felt they could admit that they had children too! Because the woman would say: “sorry, I absolutely need to finish this meeting at 6 because I have to pick up the kids.” And suddenly when you had a couple of women saying that, then the dads would say: “Actually, I need to leave because I’ve got childcare responsibilities too”. But before the women were there (in those senior positions) the men hadn’t felt empowered to speak up. So I think that making it okay, and acceptable and just much more of the norm, it takes a while. And actually more diversity helps dads to take on that role too.
We often say at Fathers Network Scotland that making things better for dads as parents makes things better for women in the workplace…
Yep. The two are absolutely linked. You want more equality in the workplace? Get more equality in the home. And part of that is legislation. But there’s even a bit of it that’s about mum accepting that she’s not necessarily supreme within the home environment. There’s a slight challenge to women on that as well, I think. This image of the slightly hapless dad… when actually dads are just as good most of this stuff as women! Obviously as individuals we’re all different, some people will be better at making stories, some at making arts and crafts, or singing songs. But as a gender, other than breast-feeding, I’ve yet to find something that dads aren’t able to do!
For more information on Shared Parental Leave and what it will mean for both couples and employers, go to: www.gov.uk/sharedparentalleave