Paternity leave is good for families and good for business

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The business lobby risks crying wolf once too often over the Government's plans to give fathers a fortnight's paid paternity leave. The same doomsayers who warned that they would be ruined by maternity leave, the minimum wage and even, if you look back long enough, by paid holidays, are at it again. Once more, they say, Labour is leading the country down the road of our work-shy European neighbours.

The business lobby risks crying wolf once too often over the Government's plans to give fathers a fortnight's paid paternity leave. The same doomsayers who warned that they would be ruined by maternity leave, the minimum wage and even, if you look back long enough, by paid holidays, are at it again. Once more, they say, Labour is leading the country down the road of our work-shy European neighbours.

It is hard amid such rhetoric to recognise the reality of men's lives when they become fathers. They take their bread-winning role seriously - perhaps too seriously.

New dads in Britain actually increase their hours of work. They are hardly shirkers - they work the longest hours in Europe. Would it do so much harm to let them get to know their babies for a couple of weeks before returning to the treadmill?

If that sounds sentimental, then think practically. The NHS pushes mothers out of maternity wards as soon as possible. Who looks after them? Up to 20 per cent of these women have had Caesarean deliveries. Many lack extended families to back them up. Fathers are a key support. It is hardly surprising that post-natal depression is less prevalent when the father is actively involved.

Breast-feeding is apparently more successful when dads are supportive and well-informed. This is why the health service in Scotland targets dads in its public health education programme. It also points to a vital purpose for paternity leave. During the first fortnight, ham-fisted first-time parents gain both confidence and some knowledge. Health visitors are in and out of the home. But if dad is at work, he misses out, and so may his children.

Does it matter that so many fathers are ignorant of the basics in child care? It does, when you stop to realise that more and more children are in the sole care of their fathers more of the time. The latest research shows that where mothers are working, fathers now do more care-giving than any other third party. In short, ignorant fathers are a danger to their children.

If this is still too sentimental for the business lobby, then let's talk profit. AMP, Australia's largest insurer, give its new dads six weeks' paid parental leave, far more than the Government's parsimonious proposal. They reckon the scheme saves them money through reduced staff turnover. Looking after dads is not just good for families, it can be good for business.

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