Leading article: A price that must be paid for a civilised society

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The Independent Online

Harriet Harman's legacy is on its way. From April, the legislation she pushed through allowing new mothers to transfer the second half of their year-long maternity leave to the child's father (should they decide to return to work early) will come into effect. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, paid tribute to the former women and equalities minister, but also signalled his intention to carry on where she left off.

In a speech to the Demos think-tank, Mr Clegg floated several ideas for extending paternity/maternity rights still further. Among these were allowing parents to transfer pay allowances (as well as leave time) and permitting parents to take leave in a number of chunks (rather than in a single block at present). He also suggested "use-it-or-lose-it" blocks of leave for fathers, not transferable to partners, to encourage more men to take up their statutory paternity leave.

This was a pledge from Mr Clegg to consult, rather than anything firmer. And he admitted that some of these ideas might prove "unaffordable". Yet greater flexibility in parental leave rights is badly needed. Mr Clegg should be more resolute.

A 2009 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 45 per cent of new fathers questioned did not take paternity leave, despite the fact that 88 per cent said they would have liked to. Ms Harman's new, more flexible, arrangements should encourage more fathers to exercise their rights. But its impact is still likely to be limited since around half of fathers say they cannot afford to forgo their earnings.

Mr Clegg's latest proposals have provoked familiar cries of anguish from the business lobby. The British Chambers of Commerce has conjured up images of small firms strangled by new rolls of red tape and a precarious economic recovery put in jeopardy. This is over the top. Nothing has been promised before 2015, so the idea that this announcement risks derailing economic growth is unconvincing.

The purpose of these reforms is to introduce more flexibility and greater equality between the sexes when it comes to caring for young children. The present system reinforces the outdated assumption that the mother's primary role is that of the carer and the father is the breadwinner. Mr Clegg calls this "Edwardian", but it has been around much longer than that.

Economic arguments against increased paternity, of the sort commonly deployed by business pressure groups, betray narrow thinking. They do not take into consideration the wider economic benefits of fathers spending more time with their very young children. Research shows that the attainment gaps between different children begin to emerge in the very early years. And the gulf is often explained by the quality (and quantity) of parenting a child receives. Encouraging parents to take an active role in the early months will result in a better educated, happier, society.

The problem is that many employers around Britain are still sniffy about maternity leave and often downright hostile to paternity leave. The Government needs to transform Britain's culture of resistance to parents taking time off in their child's first year. And this will inevitably involve standing up to business lobbying. However long Mr Clegg consults, an extension of paternity rights will end up imposing some up-front costs on businesses. And it will result in disruption for many small firms. But sometimes there is a price that needs to be paid for a civilised society; one that puts the wellbeing of children above immediate profit. Our society is wealthy enough to bear those costs.