There are times when the Coalition leaders give the impression that they are playing good cop, bad cop – with the role of good cop invariably awarded to the Liberal Democrat. This week offers a classic case in point, with David Cameron defending his arms sales trip to the Gulf at the Lord Mayor's banquet, followed yesterday by Nick Clegg presenting a significant – and thoroughly welcome – liberalisation of arrangements for parental leave.
The UK already enjoys relatively – the emphasis being on the word relatively – generous leave for new mothers, who are entitled to take a year off, with six weeks of that at 90 per cent of full pay, and a guaranteed return to their old, or an equivalent, job with their employer. Provision for fathers, though, has been parsimonious, with only two weeks of statutory time off. One result of the disparity has been a continuing wariness on the part of employers, especially in small companies, to take on women of childbearing age – which has the effect of entrenching discrimination in the workplace. It may be illegal for a prospective employer to ask women about their plans for children, but conclusions may nonetheless be drawn.
As Mr Clegg announced yesterday, parents will be able to share a year of parental leave, using it separately or together, as and when they please. It is disappointing that paid paternity leave is not being extended, and that the new arrangements will start only from 2015. But late, in these straitened times, is better than never.
The onus now passes to fathers to use their new entitlement. That it will be a right, not discretionary, should help smooth the way. The most positive effect of shared parental leave, however, should be that employers start to treat men and women more equally. Not only this, but any men who resent the absence of women on maternity leave now know that they can take some of their own. It may take time for the new arrangements to settle in, but the longer-term implications are great, and this represents a real change for the better.