Leading Article: Mature fathers without laws

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The Independent Online
TO MANY family men, Michael Portillo's unwillingness to accept new European Union rules on paternity leave will seem churlish. The proposed directive looks harmless enough: it would entitle fathers to take up to three months off work without pay after the birth or adoption of children. Here, surely, is a relatively inexpensive policy the implementation of which might help justify claims that the Conservative Party is a champion of the family. After all, was it not Alistair Burt, Mr Portillo's ministerial colleague at the Department of Social Security, who chastised British companies for failing to take into account the impact of long working hours on family life?

Yet Mr Portillo's stance is more reasonable than it might seem. It is consistent with the Government's well-founded belief that there is little to gain and much to lose from applying social rules and regulations across the EU. On such matters national legislatures are well able to decide policy. That was the rationale of Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty nearly three years ago. The wisdom of securing that opt- out was shown yesterday when Mr Portillo was also able to avoid new EU rules obliging companies to establish works councils. Here again the EU was seeking to impose itself by requiring an over-centralised and outdated framework for company relations with staff.

By opting out of the Social Chapter, Britain has sought to remind its partners that Europe must regain its competitiveness with the United States and Japan or face the destruction of the social infrastructure its citizens value so highly. As documented in this year's OECD report on employment, non-wage labour costs are too high in Europe compared with North America - a factor that helps explain why so many more jobs are created in the US. It may suit Germany, where such non-wage costs are particularly high, to persuade its neighbours to adopt similar policies. But levelling up is the road to mutually assured self-destruction.

Nevertheless, measures that encourage men to take a more prominent role in child-rearing should be welcomed. The rising number of lone parents, predominantly women, show that changes in male attitudes are urgently needed. As more mothers work outside the home, men should become more flexible in their working lives, to make up what can otherwise be a 'parenting deficit'.

Paternity leave would help men begin fatherhood in a mature and supportive fashion. However, passing a new law giving them the right to take unpaid time off would have only a limited impact. Small companies, for whom this measure could be disruptive, would have to be excluded, and the self-employed would not benefit. Flexible working time for men will best be achieved by local initiative and negotiation rather than by government edict.

In the political sphere, one fruitful approach might be to examine whether parental leave, now taken exclusively by mothers, might not be shared with fathers.