Litmus test of family values

Britain's failure to back an EU plan for parental leave is wrong and out of touch
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The Independent Online
Today, the European Council of Ministers is likely to agree to give all parents a minimum of three months unpaid parental leave. For many countries this is hardly a radical step. Germany already offers up to three years off and Sweden up to 15 months off. Yet Britain, alone among the European Union's 16 members, will not be signing up for the directive. As far as our politicians in Westminster are concerned, parental leave is now off the agenda.

But whatever Britain's attitude to Europe, it is quite clear that debate about parenting is intense in millions of households around the country. What was once just a personal issue is fast becoming a political one as three powerful forces converge to put the issue on the agenda in the UK.

The first force for change is mounting pressure from working mothers and fathers. People are agonising over the stresses and strains of being a modern-day parent as they juggle conflicting priorities and embark on endless battles over who will take time off and who will come home early from work. These "parenting pains" are a clear factor in relationship breakdown: the number of divorces granted to couples with children under five has increased by two-thirds since the mid-Seventies. Few women want to sacrifice their jobs and careers to become permanent full-time mothers. Growing numbers of men want to play a more active role as fathers. Both are increasingly looking to the Government, as well as employers, to give them greater flexibility.

The second factor is an increased awareness that direct parental care is better for children in the early years of their life than other forms of childcare. Even in countries such as Sweden, which has a high-quality child-care network, parental leave has become so much part of the culture that there is now almost no use of childcare for children under the age of one.

The third, less visible, force for change is demography - a fifth of women born in the Sixties are predicted to remain childless. Many young women see parenting as an unattractive prospect - costly, hard work and undervalued. In the long-run, if many more opt out of parenthood, future generations of workers and taxpayers may well be inadequate to sustain a growing elderly population. Women will need help and encouragement to become mothers.

Fortunately, one of the advantages of being the laggard of Europe is that we can learn from experience elsewhere. In our extensive Demos survey of 16 countries with parental leave we found that schemes need to earmark a non-transferable period of leave to encourage male take-up. Financial support is also needed, otherwise few can afford to take leave. Perhaps most important of all, the scheme should cater for the self-employed and people in small firms as well as large organisations.

Many of the best schemes from abroad involve substantial costs. For policy- makers there is the difficult question of how these should be shared between taxpayers, employers and parents themselves. But it is already apparent from our study that employers' initial hostility to parental leave often evaporates once schemes are in place, not least because many find that productivity and employee commitment is improve. Even the burden on public finances turns out to be lower than at first appears, since the jobs created for people filling in for parents on leave reduces unemployment costs and boosts tax revenues.

In the long run, the pressure for more balanced lives, and for a welfare system that is better suited to a world where both men and women work, is mounting inexorably. Britain happily subsidises everything from farming to home ownership. There is a new pressing claim on resources. Parental leave could soon become a litmus test of whether our politicians really are serious about family values, regardless of our absence in Brussels today.

`Parental leave - the price of family values?' by Helen Wilkinson and Ivan Briscor is available from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP. Tel: 0171 353 4479.