'Edwardian' maternity leave to be able to be shared with fathers* under new proposals

The UK Government has announced that it will be conducting a root and branch reform of existing maternity and paternity leave entitlements, to move provision away from the existing 'Edwardian' arrangements. Speaking to Demos, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, set out details of a consultation process, which would ultimately seek to allow families to divide responsibilities for baby care in the way that most suits their needs. 

Maternity and paternity leave is already set to change in April 2010, when parents will be able to share 46 weeks of leave. This means, for example, that if a mother returns to work after 20 weeks, then her partner will be able to take 16 weeks of leave.

Clegg has said that the Government will launch a consultation on a "properly flexible system" within the next few weeks, with a view to implementation in 2015. Possibilities for this new flexibility include enabling parents to share shorter chunks of leave, the introduction of leave specifically aimed at fathers* on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, and enabling fathers to start paternity leave six weeks after the birth.

There has been a reasonably warm response from business groups, with the Federation of Small Businesses averring that "allowing parents greater flexibility as to when and how leave is taken would give them more choice and at the same time enable employers to feel confident that they understand their employees’ intentions about returning to work".  The CBI "support[s] moves to make parental leave more flexible", stating that "this will help families better balance their work and home life."

Women in Scotland are unequally responsible for childcare, care for sick people, and care for older people. Despite the fact that women are now present in the formal labour market in greater numbers than previous generations, the additional burden of reproductive labour means that women are often crowded into low-pay, low-status work because it can be done on a part-time or flexible basis. Childcare patterns established in the first year of a baby's life can be difficult to change, and structures that allow fathers and partners to share more equally in care are to be welcomed.

*Despite the use of the name 'paternity leave', the leave is available to female partners of women who have given birth. The impact of leave proposals on same-sex couples has largely been missing from the discussion.

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