Paternity Leave and Tackling Inequality

2018-09-27.pngDads are currently only entitled to one or two weeks’ statutory paternity leave - and today in a debate in Scottish Parliament, FULTON MACGREGOR and a range of MSPs from across party lines called for more generous provision and an end to inequality.

Below is the opening speech offered in support of the motion that the Parliament: 

  • believes that challenging the presumption that women are primarily responsible for raising children is key to tackling wider societal inequality, including the gender pay gap
  • notes international research showing a link between increased paternity leave and a range of positive outcomes, including greater maternal wellbeing and reduced incidence of postnatal depression
  • understands that some employers offer enhanced leave or pay, including the Scottish Government, which offers staff four weeks’ paternity leave on full pay, and notes the view that families across Scotland, including in the Coatbridge and Chryston constituency, would benefit from such practices being adopted by other employers.

OPENING SPEECH

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge & Chryston, SNP): I thank all members who supported my motion to bring this important topic to the chamber. I also thank Fathers Network Scotland and Bliss for their briefings. I know that my colleague Gillian Martin will refer to the impact of paternity leave for families of children who are born prematurely.

I think that it is fair to say that this Scottish National Party Government has made some massive steps recently on gender equality, from providing funding to gender equality organisations and its bold and radical plans to increase childcare provision, allowing more parents flexibility, to the passing of recent legislation such as the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018 and the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which for the first time recognises psychological abuse.

Everything that we do should have equality at its core and there is still much to do, which is why the motion tackles head on the issue of paternity leave. Just now, in the United Kingdom and Scotland, fathers get up to two weeks, which the dad can take from the birth of the child. Some employers, including the Scottish Government, offer a bit more—up to four weeks—but the general standard is two weeks, with one week being paid and the other week unpaid.

A LACK OF SUPPORT

That lack of support and recognition for fathers, which is historical, only reflects and reinforces cultural assumptions about traditional gender roles, where the father is the breadwinner and the mother is the primary carer. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to challenge that head on. We are way behind many other countries in doing that. For example, Iceland, Slovenia, Sweden, Finland and Norway offer between 10 and 12 weeks of paternity leave. Research from those countries indicates strongly that where there is higher paternity leave, higher levels of gender equality are reported.

Statistics that were recently presented to the United Kingdom Government show that fathers are carrying out a greater proportion of childcare than ever before. In 1961, the time that fathers spent caring for pre-school children was 15 per cent of the time that mothers spent doing so. By 2017, the time was almost half. That means that, for every hour that a mother devoted to caring for a young child, a father devoted roughly 30 minutes. That is still not equality—far from it—but it is progress. However, how can true equality and progress be reached if the structures that are in place do not allow that—indeed, if the structures that are in place are there just to reinforce assumptions about gender roles?

FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED

The shared paternity scheme has its benefits and works for some families. In that regard, it is to be welcomed. However, I agree with Fathers Network Scotland and a recent North Lanarkshire Council committee paper that the scheme is fundamentally flawed. That is because, in essence, it pits ordinary working-class people against each another—in this case, parents who have to work out how to split the same period of leave. Many who use the scheme do so on financial grounds, and it sends a message that any time that is taken from the mother to spend attaching with her child is her responsibility. That perpetuates cultural assumptions and does not take into account possible power imbalances. There should be a separate paternity leave policy for fathers.

It is clear that modern fathers want to play more of a role. Various studies and reports, such as “The Modern Families Index 2017”, suggest that. I speak to members as a dad of two young children. My eldest child is four and my youngest is one. I love being fully involved in their care, play and learning. Fathers want to spend more time with their children, but that is not reflected in current legislation on paternity leave, which continues to focus on mum being responsible for the childcare and the housework.

EVERYONE BENEFITS

It is a fact that increased paternity leave benefits everyone and society as a whole. It allows fathers to spend more valuable time with their children, lowers rates of male postnatal depression, and helps us men to reflect and challenge implicit attitudes about mothers being the primary care givers. For mothers, it can allow for a quicker return to work, which is important if that is what they want. It can lower their rates of postnatal depression and allow them more time to recuperate physically and emotionally after pregnancy. For children, increased paternity leave can lead to more time spent with dad. That might seem simple, but it is true. Studies show that children with highly involved fathers tend to perform better in cognitive test scores, be more sociable and have fewer behavioural problems.

I lodged the motion in April, and I am pleased that the resolution that I laid was passed resoundingly at the Scottish National Party conference in June and that it is now party policy. I have, of course, also written to various public bodies and met private companies about the issue.

In May, I wrote to every local authority in Scotland. I am pleased that, since then, my local authority—North Lanarkshire Council—has adopted the policy after it was proposed by the SNP group at its most recent council meeting. From next week, new fathers who work for North Lanarkshire Council will be entitled to four weeks fully paid paternity leave. Yesterday, I learned that North Lanarkshire Council officers have agreed to backdate the policy to 21 June, when it was agreed by councillors.

Of the other councils that I have heard from, I understand that Inverclyde Council and Stirling Council are making positive steps to introduce the higher level of paid leave. I also understand that progress is being made towards a fairer system in South Lanarkshire and Midlothian.

DISAPPOINTING RESPONSES

I was disappointed by some responses, particularly that from the chief executive of Aberdeen City Council, who ruled out a change without even investigating the possible benefits of making it. When I wrote to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in May, I received a response from the resources spokesperson that did not exactly fill me with confidence. It was similar to the response from Aberdeen City Council: there was a straight refusal to even discuss the idea. I wrote again to COSLA following North Lanarkshire Council’s decision. The response that I received this morning from the chief executive was again a flat refusal to put the issue on the agenda. That is extremely disappointing. I encourage the political leaders of all parties to overturn such decisions and ensure that the issue is at least discussed, and I encourage MSPs across the chamber to write to their local authorities and ask for change, just as North Lanarkshire Council has changed.

I also wrote to all the national health service boards in Scotland. Almost universally, the boards said in response that any proposed change would need to be approved by the Scottish workforce and staff governance committee. I hope that the issue will be discussed in one of its upcoming meetings.

LEADING THE WAY

Following the campaign publicity, I was contacted by Aviva Insurance, which I met at its offices in Bishopbriggs with my colleague Rona Mackay, who is the constituency MSP. I was very impressed to hear about the company’s policy of 52 weeks’ leave, 26 weeks of which is fully paid, for all parents, including new fathers. Aviva is leading the way on the issue, and I hope that other large companies throughout the UK will take notice.

I also wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions. Members might be surprised to hear that I got a response—obviously, I got it before the DWP stopped speaking to MSPs—but I was extremely disappointed with it. It completely ignored the points that I had raised and simply pointed to the shared parental leave policy. I have already spoken about how that is not the right way to do things, and I hope that the policy will be reviewed soon.

A GOOD START

Do I think that providing four weeks’ paternity leave goes far enough? No, I do not, but it is a good start. I call on all public and private sector organisations to implement fairer policies, such as those of North Lanarkshire Council and Aviva. Organisations that do so will benefit in the longer term, and it will be another small step on the way to becoming the Scotland that we want to become.

Ultimately, the issue can be sorted at a UK Government level, and I am glad to have the support of the members of Parliament Neil Gray and Angela Crawley, who have committed to raising the issue in London. My message to the UK Government is clear: please send a clear message and implement separate paternity leave for fathers of at least four, and preferably up to 12, weeks. I ask it to do that or to devolve the powers to the Scottish Parliament so that we can get on with the job of making Scotland as fair and equal a country as it can be.

Go to the Scottish Parliament website for video and full transcript of the speech and those that followed.