Leading Article: Let the law lead the way to better parenting

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The Independent Culture
IT IS easy to criticise the Government proposals that were announced yesterday for extra-parental leave. It is said that the well-off will benefit most, because those on lower incomes cannot afford to take three months without pay. Small businessmen, especially, are unhappy because it will make life more difficult if essential employees are allowed to vanish for weeks or months at a time. This, in turn, could mean that the new rules will backfire; employers could be less eager to hire the parents of young children, or women of child-bearing age, who might cause such unwanted chaos. The idea that an employee has the right to walk out on the job at any moment because of a hiccup with the child-minder conjures up visions of disastrous chaos.

Many of these reservations are, however, equally true of the very concept of maternity leave and protection from sacking which we now take for granted.

The culture of easy-come, easy-go hiring and firing has taken root in recent years. Those with jobs find that greater demands are made of them than ever before. In those circumstances, it can be argued that it is unrealistic to give theoretical new rights which will be trampled in practice. But it is in this hostile climate, above all, that legislative protection should be put in place. Clearly, the danger exists that an employee may behave selfishly, creating unnecessary difficulties for his or her colleagues. But the same danger exists with sick leave. That cannot in itself be seen as a reason not to do the sensible thing.

The same point applies to the proposed entitlement to unpaid paternity leave and for longer maternity leave. Statistics confirm that the stresses caused by juggling work and home are greater than ever. Anything that makes the juggling easier is to be welcomed. Even now, the involvement of fathers in childcare arrangements causes raised eyebrows. Parents are regularly expected to tell lies in order to cope with, for example, a sick child, by pretending that they themselves have been taken ill. That is an absurd state of affairs to have got ourselves into.

With luck, the new proposals will help to persuade otherwise recalcitrant bosses that it is reasonable for an employee to be worried about problems at home, not just about problems at work. The case this week of the single woman with a baby who was sacked for refusing to work 16-hour days at Heathrow highlights the extent to which employers still need to have their arms legally twisted in order to do the decent thing.

In a world where unions are less powerful than they were, such protection needs to be reinforced by the law wherever possible. The idea that the only good employee is the employee who is ready to be chained at all hours to his or her desk, no matter what the domestic cost, needs to be squashed. If a change in the law can help achieve that end, so much the better.