Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families, looks at the arguments for and against the Chancellor’s plan to extend shared parental leave to grandparents.
The Chancellor pulled another rabbit from his hat when he announced plans to extend shared parental leave (SPL) to grandparents from 2018, cheerfully adopting as his own a proposal from Labour’s General Election manifesto. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills promises us a consultation in the early New Year.
For now, let’s start with the positives. This is about enabling new mothers to return to work; and about enabling older workers, who might otherwise leave to care for a grandchild, to remain in the workforce. The government says there are two million grandparents who have stopped work, reduced their hours or taken time off for childcare.
In fact, according to the TUC, the number of working grandparents providing regular childcare is even higher. Grandparent organisations have long been arguing for and evidencing the benefits of leave for grandparents. And it’s certainly likely to be welcomed by lone parents, who cannot take advantage of SPL as it is currently structured – around 4% of new mothers have no partner with whom they can share care.
On the other hand, purely practically, many employers are likely to feel that SPL is complicated enough and should be given time to bed down before any changes are proposed.
Extending to grandparents may undermine the policy aim of SPL – to encourage more fathers to share care. The significance of this for society lies in evidence that the more leave a father takes in the first year of his child’s life, the stronger his long term engagement in family life with evidence too of a reduction in family breakdown.
Our Modern Families Index includes a strong business case too, with young fathers the least satisfied with their work-life balance, and the most inclined to blame their employer. The aim was also to begin to challenge gendered assumptions in the workplace about who is likely to take on primary care responsibilities, thus reducing discrimination against mothers and women generally. (A simple answer to this would be to give fathers an independent right to leave, and to pay it properly. But that’s a whole other debate).
Since we can probably anticipate that more grandmothers than grandfathers will request grandparent SPL there must be some risk of simply extending the lifetime of discrimination faced by women at work. And unless the government proposes to allow SPL to be shared more than two ways, for many families it will become a case of father or granny.
Whether they allow multiple shares or not, the proposal further complicates a right which is already overly complex.
Threat to enhanced pay for fathers
And finally, it could well unsettle and undermine the expansion of enhanced pay for fathers taking SPL. Employers who I have asked about extending SPL to other family members have been generally reluctant to consider it – each new tranche of employees requires an additional business case to be built, additional costs to be justified, and few could see many compelling arguments to do so. But many will be worried that if they enhance pay for fathers, it could be discriminatory to deny it to grandparents or others.
What do we really need? Possibly a general right to family leave, which some Working Families members find attractive, sitting well with the diverse care responsibilities and relationships which they know exist among their staff. Let’s create something which offers maximum choice and flexibility for all and let’s stop salami-slicing the workforce into ever smaller constituencies. I find that simple and compelling, but realistically? Until we can confidently say that no-one experiences discrimination or disadvantage based on their lives outside work, we still need specific rights for specific groups – especially women, mothers, fathers, carers and grandparents.