I just became a dad, so I know how vital proper paternity leave is

Good on Labour for its proposal, but the economics of it are not so simple

In a shameless attempt to corner the People Too Tired to Operate vote, Ed Miliband has proposed doubling the period of paid statutory to four weeks.

As a dad who has relatively recently returned from paternity leave, the only reaction to this news is a weary, sleepless thumbs-up.

Any man who’s had a baby, spent a week or two struggling to adjust it to the world (and trying to adjust to its world) will tell you the heartbreak of having to leave him or her at home for the first time to return to work. It’s for good reason that British dads cast envious looks northwards to Sweden, where new dads take an average of seven weeks off to raise their children.

The lot for British fathers has improved immeasurably since my own parents’ generation. A friend tells me of his doctor father taking him and his mother home from the hospital and heading straight out on calls. And the new rules regarding shared parental leave coming to the UK in April will help  even more, but we’ve still got a long way to go. (The Swedes brought in gender-neutral parental leave allowance 40 years ago).

An extra two weeks’ paid leave ought to encourage fathers to spend more time with mother and baby. It certainly would have allowed me to justify more time at home.  My wife’s labour was long and slow. We entered the hospital on the Monday and didn’t get home – plus one – until the Friday evening. No birth is typical, but nor is it untypical to spend this long in hospital. So by the time we’d got home to the easy stage of working out how to make this crying baby stop crying that I’d used half of my paternity leave. Thankfully, I’d remedied this by booking an extra’s week’s leave from my holiday entitlement. In that case I was lucky enough to work for a company big enough to have team members picking up the slack and covering for me – which might not be the case in a smaller business. Or less accommodating ones.

Of course, while few people are going to look a paid-leave-horse in the mouth, the economics of an extra fortnight off work aren’t that simple. Labour’s plans would be to offer the extra two weeks’ pay at a statutory rate (they’re also planning to raise that from£138.18 a week to £260). That extra £520  isn’t to be sniffed at, but it’s still only 80 hours’ work at the minimum wage at a time when your partner’s earning will have drastically dropped. So if you earn more than that, you’re going to be losing money taking those extra two weeks off unless your company tops it up. Fantastic if you can afford to, not if you can’t.

A 2014 American study, found that men took off exactly as much time to look after their kids as they were paid to. Which is hardly surprising. Eighty-six per cent of those men said they wouldn’t take paternity leave unless they were paid at least 70 per cent of their normal salaries.

When working out when to return to work, it doesn't help that policies on paternity (and maternity) pay play out like a lottery depending on your employer. The Independent gave me two weeks’ full pay. A friend who had a baby a month after me got three weeks’ pay, but he’d received just one week’s pay for the child he had while at a previous employer. And of course many men don’t get any full-paid leave.

Still, we’ve come a long way. Labour’s proposals would keep pushing us towards other European and Scandinavian countries which place a premium on fathers having the time and resources to bond with their children. And that’s to be applauded.

And even if Labour’s plans never get further than a manifesto pledge, us British dads can take solace from the fact that we’re still light years ahead of the United States, which has no statutory paternity (or maternity) leave, and where only only 14 per cent of companies offer paid parental leave for dads. Ouch.   

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