There was rare cross-party consensus in Westminster yesterday over the importance of fathers, as several MPs called for a UK-wide Year of the Dad following Scotland's example. Here in full is the opening speech by NEIL GRAY, MP for Airdrie and Shotts, who brought the subject to Westminster Hall for debate.
One of my proudest moments, not only as a father, but as a parliamentarian, was taking my young daughter and son through the voting Lobby with me on Friday to see the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) pass its final stages in the Commons.
I hope that by ratifying the Istanbul convention on gender-based violence we are taking another step to eradicate domestic violence and violence against women and girls.
It is thanks to Nick Thorpe of Fathers Network Scotland and Frank Young from the Centre for Social Justice that I applied for this debate. I was involved in a very small way in helping to promote Scotland’s Year of the Dad in 2016, but at a relatively recent meeting with Nick, I agreed to do what I could to help promote reflection on last year and to encourage something similar elsewhere in the UK.
Dad, father, stand-in dad, daddy, step-dad, foster father, adoptive dad, daddies who have to be mummies too—there are so many ways to describe the male role in the family, but its meaning is slowly starting to change.
In 2016, Scotland celebrated the Year of the Dad to help promote the contribution fathers or those in a fatherly role make to child development, families and society, and to provide greater understanding of the benefits reaped from organisations acknowledging the family roles of men.
The Year of the Dad was established by Fathers Network Scotland and supported by the Scottish Government because we are at a tipping point in our cultural evolution. The project’s review paper states:
“The old stereotypes of dad as breadwinner and mum as carer no longer serve us in an age of increasing diversity and gender equality at home, work and throughout society.”
Some 95 events reached nearly 15,000 people, more than half a million people were reached through media coverage, and there were tens of thousands of visits to the website, where more than 40 resource documents for families, services and employers were available. Some 5,800 individuals and 1,300 organisations signed up to the campaign in 2016, highlighting the positive message about fatherhood and the importance of dads in child development and parenting.
It should be obvious that recognising the role fathers play or should play does not in any way diminish the role mothers play—quite the opposite. I am clear, and the research shows, that society as a whole benefits from the positive involvement of fathers. As I see it, the increased wellbeing, confidence and educational attainment of children is the biggest benefit. So getting it right for fathers is about getting it right for every child.
The Scottish Government were clear that supporting the Year of the Dad was a central part of their gender equality policy. Male parental leave is key to narrowing the pay gap that disgracefully still exists for women. Clearly, it is all about having choices and giving parents the ability to choose what is best for them, but from a public policy perspective, we need to change societal norms to give parents a better opportunity to choose what is right for them. The current vicious circle of expensive childcare, low pay and societal pressures on women and men keeps many women in the primary caregiver role instead of allowing them to return to the workplace if that is what they want to do.
Last week, after patiently waiting almost a year for the UK Government to respond to its recommendations on tackling the gender pay gap, the Women and Equalities Committee set out its three priorities for the Government, including a more effective policy on shared parental leave. Unless the UK Government recognise the value of men and women sharing care responsibilities equally, and encourage men to take parental leave, we will not see any changes to current behaviour. Recent research from PwC found that, on current trends, it would take another 24 years to close the gender pay gap between men and women, which is clearly unacceptable.
If a woman faces discrimination when she returns to the workplace after having a child, such as not receiving a promotion in line with her male counterparts or being dismissed for requesting flexible working hours, that does not incentivise men to do more at home to care for their children. Of course, some men do not need incentives—they want to be at home more—but workplace norms make that request awkward to make. Why should a man be at home when his wife could be there?
Research from Plymouth University from earlier this year stated that dads face a “fatherhood forfeit” when applying for part-time employment in the workplace—dads who want to work reduced hours or on a flexible basis are perceived as suspicious or deviant and questions are raised about their commitment.
The SNP Scottish Government are working hard to promote and reward flexible working and childcare in Scotland, using our devolved powers. They have supported the “Happy to talk flexible working” job advert strapline, which I added to my own recent job adverts. Working in partnership with Family Friendly Working Scotland, they have supported the top employers for working families awards. This year’s award ceremony is taking place next week, and I look forward to attending.
The Scottish Government are also committed to almost doubling free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours a year by 2020. The UK Government need to ensure that advice and support is available to fathers so that they are aware of their rights to paternity and parental leave.
Shared parental leave was introduced by the last UK Government, but there was a widespread admission, including from its architect Jo Swinson, that the current policy does not go far enough. We need to ensure that employers are supported in offering all employees the opportunity to take a period of leave to care for their child, so that the responsibility does not fall de facto on women’s shoulders. We need an effective shared parental leave policy that will help men at home and also women at work. It would also help the economy, because a 2014 Centre for Economics and Business Research study suggests that a “work from anywhere” culture would add an extra £11.5 billion a year to the UK economy.
Some mums want to stay at home for as long as possible and would not choose to share parental leave with their partner—I can perfectly understand that—but we are failing to help the mums who want to return to work and the dads who want to spend more time at home. In a similar vein, employees now have a right to request flexible working, but there is no definition of what that means, nor any compulsion on employers to do anything other than just consider it.
As a society we are starting, rightly, to move away from the definition of fathers as the breadwinning disciplinarians, but we have not yet caught up in the workplace. The shift in fathers’ desire to be more involved at home does not match the predicted uptake of parental leave by men of between 2% and 8%. There is still a reticence among men to ask to be at home more and a market expectation on them to continue in the traditional role as working breadwinners.
The only way to shift societal norms is to support or incentivise behaviour through policy, but employment law is currently decided here at Westminster. The UK Government must acknowledge the reality that gender-based discrimination against both men and women is not only hugely detrimental to individuals and our society but is harming our continued economic growth.
There was no prouder or more important moment of my life than when I became a father—on either occasion, in case my daughter or son look back on this and suggest any favouritism—but fatherhood and parenthood is clearly not a single event; it is a lifelong adventure and responsibility. My experiences as a dad are already different from my father’s, as society moves on.
The Year of the Dad highlighted why being a dad is so important. I have raised this issue today to suggest to the UK Government that they need to do more to help in that regard. We need to support the changing societal ideas about what being a dad is about and support employers so that dads can live up to the new expectations and aspirations of fathers.
I make an offer to the Minister today to help constructively to ensure that the UK Government’s employment law is directed towards supporting all mums and dads to be able make the choices that are right for them and their children.