Paternity Leave and Tackling Inequality

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th September 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-11590, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, on paternity leave and tackling inequality. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that dads, partners of adopters and intended parents having babies through surrogacy are entitled to one or two weeks’ statutory paternity leave; 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.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

I thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing this members’ business debate to the chamber. I welcome the fact that he has raised the broader issue. We can all agree that parents should spend as much time as possible with young children. From my experience, I can say with certainty that those early times are to be especially cherished. I wish that I had known when my children were young just how quickly those times would pass. I say to Fulton MacGregor that he will blink and, before he knows it, his children will be 20 and 22, so he should please enjoy it.

In the brief time that I have for my speech, I will try to examine what is preventing parents, especially fathers, from doing just that—spending more time with their newborn children. I feel that ingrained cultural views are the biggest hindrance. That is shown by a recent University of Edinburgh study that found that fathers in Scotland often feel too worried or embarrassed to use their paternity rights fully. Even in 2018, social culture has not progressed to the point where fathers feel comfortable taking time off work at that pivotal moment in not only their lives but their families’ lives. Even when families can comfortably afford it, fathers often have a nagging doubt that employers will view their time off negatively. In some workplaces, there is a persistent overtly masculine culture that views time off to tend to a newborn baby as simply inappropriate.

Of respondents to the survey for the “Modern Families Index 2017”, 41 per cent said that they had lied to their employer or bent the truth about family-related responsibilities that might be seen as interfering with work. Regrettably, many people feel that they have to do that. How sad is that? We have come a long way since the 1960s, when the amount of time that fathers spent caring for their children was barely 15 per cent of the time that mothers spent doing so. According to House of Commons library research, in 2017 the figure for fathers was almost half of that for mothers. That demonstrates that we still have a long way to go. What we need most is a widespread change of attitude. It must become the norm for both parents to take leave. The Scottish Parliament information centre has pointed to international research that demonstrates the beneficial effects when fathers are involved in childcare.

By encouraging a shift in opinion on paternity leave, we can also help to tackle the stubborn gender pay gap. In 2018, fathers continue to be seen far too often as the primary breadwinners for a family, with the mother seen as the carer. Talented women should not be exiled from the workforce because they choose to have a child. It is possible to have the best of both worlds, juggling parenthood with careers. In that respect, the UK Government’s introduction of shared and flexible parental leave is most welcome. Working couples now have the opportunity to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. The system means that eligible families can choose how to balance their work and caring commitments, giving them greater flexibility.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I apologise to Fulton MacGregor for missing the first couple of minutes of his speech, and thank the Presiding Officer for giving me prior approval for doing so.

I was really pleased to see the motion and to add my support to Fulton MacGregor’s campaign, on which he has been determined and which has helped to keep issues around paternity leave and support for families high on the political agenda.

I first met Fulton MacGregor when we were both elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 and I got the impression quite early on that he was passionate about parenting. I remember being at a meeting one evening in Parliament from which he excused himself while he popped out to FaceTime his young son, which I thought was very cute. I hope that he was not making it up—I am sure that he was not.

It is easy for me to agree with Fulton MacGregor in this debate: it has been Labour policy for some time that leave for dads should be doubled, and it was a pledge in our manifesto. Fulton MacGregor has already mentioned North Lanarkshire, which is in my region. What North Lanarkshire Council has done is an excellent step forward; there is cross-party work going on there. It is important that we come together when we agree on things, because that benefits all our constituents.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, but it is still the case that in the majority of families women continue to have primary responsibility for daily childcare—although my husband might not agree that that is true in our case. However, that is not always through the free choice of mums and dads. For the one in four men in the United Kingdom who are not entitled to paternity leave, it is simply not an option for the dads to share the caring responsibilities for a newborn. That is not good for mums who are left to get on with it themselves, which can be a difficult task after the physical toll of childbirth. My daughter Isabella is now 12, but when she was born I was fortunate that my mum had annual leave to take, which helped me in the early weeks.

New dads are too often expected just to get on with it and to get back to work. There can be a rollercoaster of emotions for new fathers, but very rarely are any adjustments made in the workplace for what is a life-changing event.

It is difficult for dads to take unpaid leave, especially due to the expenses that are incurred from having a baby in a neonatal unit, which include transport costs and expensive hospital food. The situation is worse still for dads who are on low pay or are on benefits. I am really proud of the work that has been done by my colleague Mark Griffin, who after his baby daughter Rosa was born prematurely successfully campaigned for the introduction of the neonatal expenses fund to help families to cover such costs and lighten the burden. In that example, Mark worked constructively with the then health secretary Shona Robison. I am delighted that baby Rosa made an appearance in the chamber last week, which I think put a smile on many faces.

We know that women are more likely to be in precarious work and low pay, and that as well as having the burden of childcare they often have to care for other members of the family, too. We need to go a long way if we are to equalise the situation.

Fulton MacGregor talked about Aviva; there is encouraging work going on in the private sector, but it is worrying that some of the responses from health boards and councils were not so positive. We want all employers to benefit from the skills that parents and carers can bring to the workplace. I hope that the work that Fulton will continue to take forward will help to change attitudes and culture across our society.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I do not like to say this, but I remind members to use full names when referring to other members. I know that we are all very happy and pally, but please refer to “Mr MacGregor” or “Fulton MacGregor”, but not just “Fulton”.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Fulton MacGregor for securing the debate. He has been a champion for dads’ rights ever since I have known him. We need strong voices of fathers.

We have talked about the shared ambition to have greater equality of opportunity in order that both parents can spend time with their children without it impacting on their chances at work. Kenneth Gibson made some good points on that. One of the reasons why so many men feel that they cannot take parental leave is the impact that it will have on their work and the attitudes of others at their work.

For decades, women returning from maternity leave have been bearing the brunt of such negative attitudes. As I have mentioned in Parliament before, I was an example of that when I had my first child, Louis. It had been suggested that I would go into management, and I was in management training programmes, but once I decided to have a baby, all those things were dropped. When men see what happens to their female co-workers when they return from maternity leave it is understandable that they say to themselves, “I don’t want a piece of that action”. Fathers want the benefits of being with their newborn children, but the fallout at their work can be quite significant.

I would like to hear more normalisation of the phrase “parental leave”, rather than there being two separate categories. If we change the language, maybe a change in action will follow.

I was looking at some of the statistics. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says that last year just 9,200 fathers took any paternity leave, but three quarters of a million babies were born. Those figures paint a stark picture.

No one is saying that fathers do not want to play their part: that is not what is happening. There are many reasons why fathers feel that they cannot take the leave to which they are entitled to and, as several members have mentioned, many fathers do not have such rights—they are not entitled to any paid parental leave, perhaps because they are on zero-hours contracts or are self-employed and part of the gig economy.

However, why are the fathers who have those rights not taking them up? Much of it is down to the fact that they cannot afford to take the leave because they earn more money than their partner. The gender pay gap has been mentioned. The gender pay gap still has an impact on men, so I would like to see more men standing up and railing against the gender pay gap, because it would be good for men and for women if there were no longer that gap, and the financial reasons for mums to stay at home because dads earn more would not come into the equation.

Flexible working has also been mentioned. What North Lanarkshire Council is doing is great, but the public sector often leads the way in such things and the private sector never really catches up in any meaningful way, as I have noticed from working in the public and private sectors.

Fulton MacGregor mentioned paternity leave for parents who have premature babies. Bliss Scotland has provided a fantastic briefing note, which talks about people having a premature baby while having other children in the family who need to be looked after. If one person needs to be in the hospital the entire time, there is a question about what happens to the other children.

I will finish with a comment that was made by the mother of a baby who was receiving neonatal care.

“My husband was still going to work during the day and trying to cover the care of our other child at home. The nurses in the unit used to laugh at him because they thought that he was on shift work. He would go at midnight or one o’clock in the morning to visit the baby because that was the only way he could fit it into his day.”

That is an unacceptable situation, particularly when there are examples from around the world of countries that offer extended parental leave and maternity leave to the parents of premature babies.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing this important debate to the chamber. I particularly welcome the opening line of the motion, which widens out the matter beyond birth parents to cover those who have adopted or who have had a baby through surrogacy. It includes all families.

It is disappointing that the Greens and Lib Dems are not here to hear the debate today, because we need to build cross-party consensus on the issue.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I thank Jeremy Balfour for being one of the people who responded to the call for members to become involved in the cross-party group on shared parenting. I note that only the Conservatives and the SNP have members in that CPG. Will Jeremy Balfour join me in asking more members to join?

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Absolutely. I hope to be at the cross-party group’s meeting next Tuesday evening.

It is important that we have role models. Many people thought that it was quite cute that Chris Evans appeared on the radio 48 hours after his twins were born and was asked about the babies’ names, but we need role models to take proper time off to show that it is okay to do that. Celebrities and other such people need to show that, so I am grateful that my party leader will be taking time off once her baby arrives safely.

There has been a change in attitude. A number of members have mentioned a certain insurance company, which I think is good. I look back to my childhood and compare it with how I tried to parent my two daughters. Fathers are certainly more involved and have a more hands-on role.

I want to develop slightly some of Gillian Martin’s comments about babies who are born prematurely. My two daughters Keziah and Ellie, who have always wanted to be mentioned in the chamber—I said I would do it at some point—were born prematurely and ended up in Simpson’s maternity unit in Edinburgh for three weeks. The care that they received and that we received as a family was outstanding. I was fortunate to have a boss who was very flexible about the hours that I worked, so that my wife and I could be in and out of the hospital to be with the babies.

Every year in Scotland, 6,000 babies end up in neonatal care. Some will stay for a fairly short time while others will stay for a long time. Thanks to the Bliss Scotland briefing, I understand that 65 per cent of fathers return to work before their child or children leave the maternity unit. That puts pressure on families and fathers, who must try to juggle going to work with spending time with their children.

There are models in other parts of Europe where fathers whose children end up in special care for a short or long periods get more time off. We need to look at that situation and see what support we can give.

I also welcome some of the changes that have happened. We need to look at them and see how things can go forward. Alison Harris was correct to say that this is fundamentally a societal issue: it is about how society perceives the situation. Until we change that, legislation and warm words from politicians will take us only so far down the road.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate. I thank everyone for their contributions.

13:27 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I congratulate my colleague Fulton MacGregor on bringing the important topic of paternity leave to the fore. I believe that today’s debate is the first occasion on which paternity leave has been debated in the chamber.

The current provision of parental leave in the UK is complex—we have statutory maternity leave, parental leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave and the right to request flexible working, each of which has its own strict set of eligibility criteria and conditions. That means that some fathers and families might not even be aware of what they are entitled to.

Concerns about inequality of access to leave continue to intensify along with the rise in the number of insecure employment contracts, such as zero-hours contracts, and the prevalence of precarious working conditions. The growth in the gig economy and in self-employment, which now accounts for 12.1 per cent of the Scottish workforce, shows that our economy is reshaping, and family life is not immune to the impact of that. The fact that eligibility for work-life balance support such as paternal leave, which is, of course, reserved to the UK Parliament, remains dependent on strict conditions that are based on outdated definitions of work and employment inevitably leads to inequalities between workers who have access to the benefits of paid leave and flexible working and those who do not.

Last year’s UK labour force survey found that 24 per cent of men in employment are not eligible for paid paternity leave, because they are self-employed or because they have not worked for their current employer for long enough. To improve access to family-friendly employment rights and entitlements, legislation must clarify the statutory definitions and protections that are linked to employment status. Moreover, any such clarification must be accompanied by a proactive public awareness campaign to make sure that workers know exactly what they are entitled to and are therefore better able to plan for a sustainable work-life balance.

Although women who do not qualify for statutory maternity pay can receive maternity allowance, new fathers, potential fathers or carers-to-be who wish to take paternity leave but do not meet the statutory paternity pay conditions have no access to a paternity allowance. The fact that such provision does not exist in UK employment law represents a clear inequality that should and must be remedied. When it comes to flexible arrangements in the workplace, fathers are much more likely than mothers to report that they have no access to arrangements such as flexitime or part-time working, or working from home. Poor access to family-friendly flexible work arrangements has also been found to be more common in male-dominated sectors. Ameliorating that will require a serious shift in the working culture of male-dominated industries, but it will be a vital step towards the provision of equal access to parental leave.

Of course, independent of Government policy, employers can take a proactive approach to improving life for new fathers in their organisation. For example, last month Microsoft announced that it will require all its contractors to offer employees a minimum of 12 weeks’ parental leave. That measure, which will have an impact on everyone, from the company’s cafeteria workers and janitors to information technology support staff and engineering consultants, must be welcomed. Although it will undoubtedly increase costs for the company, bosses highlighted studies that show that better parental leave leads to increased productivity, improved morale and better retention of new parents.

The Scottish Government is working to improve the situation for new fathers with the limited powers that it has, by providing eligible employees with up to four weeks of consecutive paternity leave at full pay and encouraging other Scottish employers to work in partnership with their workforces to consider voluntarily offering a similar enhanced paternity leave. With further devolved powers, the Scottish Parliament would have the ability to make some of the improvements that I have suggested and to strengthen employment rights in a way that works for Scotland.

As the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has highlighted in the chamber, flexible working has a clear benefit not only for employees but for employers, as a more flexible workforce can be a more motivated workforce, thereby reducing absenteeism, achieving better retention rates and increasing productivity.

Most important, paternity leave is also hugely beneficial to children. In households where fathers take paternity leave, the overall time that children have with their parents increases, and studies have shown that children whose fathers are more involved in their upbringing tend to be happier and healthier, do better at school, have greater self-esteem and, as Fulton MacGregor pointed out, have fewer behavioural problems. Family life should be promoted and protected at every opportunity. A central part of that is the need for fathers to receive the maximum opportunity to look after their children at such a young age. I therefore support Fulton MacGregor’s call for fairer access to paternity leave for workers in the private and public sectors.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

Let me continue for a little.

That is a correct and practical approach, which helps fathers to spend time with their children and helps mothers to continue successful careers.

I listened with interest to what Fulton MacGregor said about North Lanarkshire Council, and I think that all advances are most welcome. Prior to the debate, I, too, was contacted by Aviva, which told me that it has adopted a policy that allows parents who are employed by the company to take the same amount of paid and unpaid time off, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or how they became a parent—whether through birth, adoption or surrogacy. In short, that means that Aviva offers up to one year of leave, of which 26 weeks is at full basic pay, for each parent employed by the company within the first 12 months of a child’s arrival.

Aviva believes that that is one of the most family-friendly policies of any employer and it is keen to get the message out so that others will follow. The policy that Aviva has adopted is to be highly commended. However, I accept what Kenny Gibson said: if people are self-employed, that alters things. When I had my second child, I was self-employed. That was a different scenario and I was forced to go back to work a lot quicker than I really wanted to.

In summary, I believe that before we seek further legislative changes, we should focus on changing the culture around childcare so that fathers feel comfortable taking their paternity leave.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. I am sure that your daughters are now delighted.

I call Jamie Hepburn to close for the Government. Minister—oh! Are you a cabinet secretary? I cannot remember.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I hope that I have not blighted your chances.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Let us face it, Presiding Officer, it would not be the first time that you have blighted my chances in some way.

I join other members in thanking Fulton MacGregor for securing the debate and, as Monica Lennon said, I am pleased that we are debating the issue. It is very important that, as the national legislature of Scotland, we keep a firm focus on it, and Fulton MacGregor has provided the chance for us to do that today. The only downside of the debate thus far has been to learn that Jeremy Balfour is much more up to date with celebrity culture than I am. I was blissfully unaware even that Chris Evans was still on the radio, let alone that he is a recent father. I thank Jeremy Balfour for enlightening me in that regard.

Clearly, employment law is reserved and it is not the responsibility of this Parliament to legislate on it or the Scottish Government to administer it. We will not linger on that fact too long, because it has been a consensual debate. However, I observe that that does not mean that we, as a Government, should not act. We should lead by example, which is what we have sought to do. We have put in place a policy—for our workforce and for those of the public bodies for which we have responsibility—whereby new fathers are entitled to four weeks of consecutive paternity leave on full pay.

Others should follow that example, and it was positive to learn that North Lanarkshire Council has implemented its paternity leave policy. It is not often that Fulton MacGregor and I get the chance to congratulate North Lanarkshire Council, but it is incumbent on us to do so when we have the opportunity. The council is to be commended for what it has done. There are other public bodies out there that have done that, too, and we need more to follow suit. I echo Gillian Martin’s observation that it cannot just be down to the public sector; we also need the private sector to be involved in this agenda.

Paternity leave is part of the wider fair work agenda. We have long held the view that we must get the benefit of a fair work approach and have inclusive workplace practices for employees in general and, in the context of this debate, for working parents in particular. In Scotland, we have been ahead of the curve on the fair work agenda for some time, and support for parents must be part of that. In that regard, as I said, the Scottish Government put in place a policy for its own workforce, and we established, for example, the carer positive initiative, which encourages employers to sign up to having in place a policy to support carers, many of whom are parents, with their caring responsibility.

We talked about the benefits of flexible working, and this Government is fully signed up to that concept. We have put that in place as far as is possible for our workforce. To help advance the flexible working agenda we are part of the family friendly working Scotland partnership and, since 2014, we have provided nearly £700,000-worth of funding to that organisation to take forward its work.

Kenneth Gibson was quite correct to say that the benefits of the flexible working agenda are self-evident for employees, and that employers greatly benefit from the approach, too, in terms of reduced absenteeism, increased staff retention and increased levels of productivity. As part of a flexible working arrangement, employers should consider how they can better support fathers with their share of parental responsibility.

We are committed to working with employers to encourage and spread progressive practice. However, we know that there is an issue with regard to the uptake of parental leave for fathers. Alison Harris referred to the UK Government’s Shared Parental Leave Regulations 2014, which have applied from 5 April 2015 and allow families to share parental leave better than was the case previously. The regulations do not go far enough, but they are in place. We believe that they should be utilised better, as they are not utilised well enough at the moment. There are issues with the perceived complexity of the system, and there is a concern that a perception exists that taking paternity leave will have a negative impact on a father’s career and that mothers lose out in terms of their entitlement to maternity leave.

Those are all aspects of the wider cultural issues. The perceived cultural norms are changing. They are probably changing too slowly, but Fulton MacGregor was correct to set out that the position is far better than it was in our grandparents’ and our parents’ generations. I do not think that my grandfather would even have changed a nappy, let alone be involved in the day-to-day care of his children. The position is much improved, but there is still a long way to go.

In that context, Gillian Martin was correct to say that we should perhaps start to talk about parental leave rather than maternity or paternity leave in order to imbue the sense that this is a shared responsibility. In that regard, I encourage all employers to work in partnership with their workforce. I encourage them to do that at all times, of course, but in relation to this agenda I encourage them, as a minimum, to ensure that they are making their workforce aware of the UK Government regulations that have been put in place, but also to consider going further and voluntarily offer enhanced paternity leave. That will make family-friendly working practices more mainstream in our economy, thus helping to eliminate some of the barriers that affect the uptake of parental leave.

The benefits of the approach for both children and fathers are self-evident in terms of building relationships, and points have also been made about those children who are born prematurely. Gillian Martin mentioned that, as did Monica Lennon and, very powerfully, Jeremy Balfour in talking about his personal experience.

Gender equality is also an important part of the agenda. Fulton MacGregor—correctly—made the point that other countries that are more progressive in their practice have much greater gender equality and lower gender pay gaps. We are focusing on that area. We have established the gender pay gap working group, and parental leave will be part of the agenda that we consider.

I close by emphasising once again the Government’s commitment to supporting working parents. Next week will be national work life week, which is an opportunity for both employers and employees to focus on wellbeing at work and work-life balance. I look forward to seeing employers in Scotland showcasing their flexible working policies and practices and, in particular, in the context of this debate, how parents can be better supported in their work-life balance.