Joan Smith: We all need time off. Only the reasons differ

New parents are entitled to leave, but singles, volunteers and the plain bored should be allowed to do something other than work

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There are many reasons why someone might need or want time off work. On Thursday, a legal secretary won a landmark legal ruling after arguing that she was forced out of her job because she asked for flexible working hours to look after her disabled son. Judges at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg agreed unanimously that Sharon Coleman has the right to claim "discrimination by association" in a British court, which will now rule on the facts of her application. The decision establishes that Europe's ban on employment discrimination protects not onlydisabled people but those who care for them.

In Ms Coleman's case, the person she has to look after happens to be her son, but the decision has significant implications for millions of other carers – daughters, sisters, sons and spouses – who have jobs outside the home as well as caring for disabled relatives. Yet this victory for workers' rights came in a week when the head of the country's new equality watchdog caused shock waves by questioning the impact of one of the most cherished employees' rights, namely maternity leave.

In a widely reported speech, Nicola Brewer, a former high-flying diplomat at the Foreign Office who is now chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), asked whether the extension of maternity leave to 12 months for each child might be holding back women's careers. She cited Sir Alan Sugar's remark that many employers are now binning CVs from women of child-bearing age, and suggested that plans to extend the right of parents to request flexible working hours until their oldest child is 16 would exacerbate the problem.

At first sight, the ruling of the European Court of Justice and Ms Brewer's speech might appear to be at odds with each other, even though the EHRC supported Ms Coleman. One is about extending the right to flexible working to millions of employees who don't have it at the moment, while the other questions the benefit of recently won rights for mothers. In fact, Ms Brewer is arguing that by concentrating on the role of mothers in childcare, the legislation reinforces gender stereotypes and doesn't do enough to encourage fathers to spend time with young children.

The gap between mothers' and fathers' rights after the birth of a child is dramatic, with new dads entitled to only two weeks' paid paternity leave, but it does at least leave their careers intact. As Ms Brewer pointed out, mothers' rights to maternity leave and flexible working are key factors in the pay gap between men and women, resulting in lower status, pay and career prospects. "The thing I worry about is that the current legislation and regulations have had the unintended consequences of making women a less attractive prospect to employers," she said.

There is another element to this, and government ministers recently learned a hard lesson about the political cost of ignoring it: anecdotal evidence suggests that the emphasis on parental rights to time off is causing resentment among fellow employees who don't have young children.

It isn't onlybig cities such as London which have huge single populations, many of whom are childless or whose children have already grown up; across the country, the figure varies between 33 and 40 per cent.

For years they have had to listen to Labour's rhetoric about supporting "hard-working families", borrowed from the Clinton administration, which ignores the existence of huge numbers of people who don't fall into that category. Gay couples, parents of adult children and single people without children don't just feel overlooked; they're also aware of all the benefits they miss out on as a consequence.

Their anger came to a head three months ago over the abolition of the 10 pence tax rate, a fiscal measure whose impact Gordon Brown failed to understand because he wrongly assumed that the poor would be protected by tax credits. Millions aren't, because they don't have dependent children, and an explosion of pent-up rage did the Prime Minister incalculable damage.

The tax débâcle exposed a key area in which the Government's thinking is out of date, based on a model of everyday life which harks back to the 1950s. In this archaic universe of nuclear families, it goes without saying that just about everyone is heterosexual, men are still the chief breadwinners and child-rearing is basically a woman's job, an assumption enshrined in the vast difference between statutory maternity and paternity leave.

Ministers would no doubt argue that giving new fathers an entitlement to two weeks' paid paternal leave is a big step into the modern world, but the message it conveys is incredibly old-fashioned. It's also proved unpopular, with only one in five fathers taking it up, but that may be explained by the fact that most men earn a lot more than £117 a week – which is all they're entitled to if they take paternal leave.

The problems thrown up by this muddle are complex and far from easy to solve. Extending fathers' rights to time off would be hugely expensive at a moment when neither employers nor the Government feel anything but gloom about the economy. It would also, like the proposed extension of paid maternity leave from nine to 12 months, further exacerbate existing tensions between parents and childless people in the workplace.

Parents tend to assume that their behaviour is altruistic but it doesn't always look like that to other people, for whom choosing to have children is exactly that – a choice, not a statement of moral worth. Parents need time away from work for various reasons, whether it's the pleasure of bonding with their infants or because they're sick, but that's also true of carers such as Ms Coleman. Other people would welcome flexible working because they'd like to volunteer for a few months after a natural disaster such as the South-east Asian tsunami, or because they have a lifelong ambition to learn to paint – or because they've done the same job for years and long for a break from the nine-to-five routine.

The Government urgently needs to start thinking about work in a different way – and that's exactly what Ms Brewer said last week in a section of her speech which was barely reported in all the excitement over her remarks on maternity leave. It's a shame because she wants to prompt a debate about the nature of work in modern Britain, starting from the notion that caring should be shared between parents and work should fit into life, rather than the other way round.

The EHRC is consulting on the role of fathers in the workplace and the family, and it wants to put fairness and equality at the heart of the discussion about the future of work; one way of doing that without huge additional cost would be to offer parental leave which mothers and fathers could share according to their family circumstances.

Ms Brewer also asked whether the UK should adopt the Dutch model, which extends the right to request flexible working to everyone and challenges employers to explain why it can't be done.

These are genuinely radical proposals, if somewhat overdue. At last someone is talking about the world of work as it is, not as Gordon Brown and his outdated rhetoric would like it to be.

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