Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Parental Leave

– in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 11th February 1987.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 3:44 pm, 11th February 1987

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a statutory right to a period of parental leave for working parents of young children; to make provision for the establishment of a parental leave fund for the reimbursement of payment made during parental leave; and for connected purposes.

This is a radical and progressive measure for parents and children. I am proud that, as I understand it, this is the first time that a parental leave Bill has been presented to the House of Commons. In many ways, that is surprising, as the need for such a Bill is now widely recognised. Such Bills are widely available elsewhere in Europe. For example, 10 of the 12 EEC countries have such provisions. Britain is almost alone in denying working fathers leave for child care. My Bill rectifies that situation.

An employee will become entitled to parental leave when he or she is the parent of a child under two years of age, or of a disabled or adopted child under five years of age. The leave entitlement that I propose is 13 weeks for each parent when both are in paid employment, 26 weeks when an employee is a single parent, and four weeks for an employed parent when the other parent is not eligible for parental leave because of unemployment, for example. Part-time workers will get a pro rata leave entitlement. Parents will suffer no loss of basic pay for taking parental leave. They will be given the right to return to the same or similar work after an absence for child care. The Government will be empowered to establish a fund to reimburse some or all payments made for parental leave.

Parental leave is different from maternity and paternity leave. Maternity leave is a minimum period of leave of absence for the mother before and after the birth. Paternity leave, where it is allowed, gives some time off for the father at the birth of the new-born child and to support the mother immediately after the birth. Parental leave, by contrast, allows time off after the expiry of maternity and paternity leave over a longer period to care for the young baby. It is available equally to both men and women.

My Bill specifically divides the entitlement equally between the mother and the father—three months each. It is not transferable. I have learnt from the Swedish example, where men, for various reasons, transfer their leave to their wives, thus curtailing many of the benefits to be derived from parental leave. As the Equal Opportunities Commission pointed out, however it is used it is essential to ensure that fathers not only have the right to parental leave but take it up themselves instead of transferring their leave entitlement to the mother. Non-transferability, therefore, emphasises both the rights and the responsibilities of fathers in caring for their young children.

The benefits of parental leave are enormous. I have identified at least five benefits to mothers and fathers. First, it helps to promote equal opportunities in employment for women. Childbirth and child rearing in the overwhelming majority of cases result in a woman being denied equal employment opportunities. That is not her choice. Choice is denied her. The options that are available to a mother who might want to resume work are limited. If work is available, often it means a return to employment conditions that make no allowance for the new circumstances of the mother, so parental leave promotes equal opportunities by giving women more options and more choice, knowing that time off is available for both herself and her husband to look after the baby and greater flexibility in resuming paid work.

Secondly, it helps women to overcome the damaging discontinuity in their employment. The Government's own women and employment study of 1984 showed that a mother of two is taken out of the labour force for an average of seven years because of her child care responsibilities. Employment rates for women with young children are very low in Britain—only a half of those in the United States and France and only a quarter of those in Sweden and Germany. The jobs that they manage to obtain are often poor-calibre, low-paid jobs that are mostly part time and that fail fully to use them or reward them for their skills. In addition, there are the long-term effects on a woman's career and income. For example, the loss of earnings for a typical mother of two could amount to £135,000 over her working life. Parental leave counters that.

The third benefit is that parental leave more fairly distributes responsibility for child care between the parents. Not only is this practically the case, but there is also an attitude-changing aspect, for the better. It challenges the view that child care is purely a woman's role. Instead, looking after children becomes recognised as the parents' joint responsibility.

Fourthly, parental leave improves family and child welfare. It helps in a small but important way to enable a mother and a father to work together as a team with their young baby. They are both more available to share the responsibilities, the burdens and the joys.

The fifth benefit is that parental leave gives dads a better deal. They have more time to spend with their young children and a better opportunity to fulfil their role as fathers. My Bill recognises that dads have both responsibilities and rights.

Of course, there are costs. For the EEC scheme, it would be between £31 million and £45 million. Mine would be more, because it is better, but it would still be well below 0·1 per cent. of the total wages and salaries bill and it could be shared between employers and the Treasury. However, these costs have to he set against the enormous benefits to individual mothers and fathers that I have just stated.

The fact is that parental leave creates jobs. It is estimated that it would create approximately 9,000 jobs. Peter Moss, the expert adviser to the House of Lords Sub-Committee that is looking at the EEC's parental leave proposals, said: Child-related discontinuity of employment does riot involve losses only for individual women. To the economy as a whole, it represents a massive underutilisation of human resources, a waste of skills and experience that has been taken for granted by successive Governments with an amazing indifference. There are similar losses to individual employers. The balance of argument about parental leave is that it is beneficial. That is why the rest of Europe has begun to implement it, and it is the Government who have been the obstacle in Britain.

Parental leave is not a panacea on its own; it must accompany other advances, such as better maternity provision, paternity leave as a statutory right, leave for family reasons such as a child's illness, and a Government boost to workplace nurseries and local authority childcare provision. Then we would be talking about policies for the family and against child abuse and neglect.

I pay tribute to the Maternity Alliance, which helped me with the Bill, and its maternity emergency campaign, of which parental leave is a part. It is holding a national rally at Central hall, Westminster on Monday 6 April, which will get widespread support. It kindly gave me a badge, which I am wearing. It says: "Parents care, care for parents." My Parental Leave Bill does just that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Ms. Jo Richardson, Mrs. Margaret Beckett, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Miss Joan Maynard, Ms. Clare Short, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Don Dixon and Mr. Dave Nellist.