Baby bond: writer Will Dean at home with his newborn baby, Johnny
Baby bond: writer Will Dean at home with his newborn baby, Johnny

Paternity leave: Do the figures actually add up?

Ed Miliband offers a sweetener for parents in his manifesto – the doubling of paternity leave. New father Will Dean wonders how useful it will be.

Will Dean@willydean
Monday 09 February 2015 20:53

In a shameless attempt to corner the "People Who Are Too Tired to Operate" vote, Ed Miliband has proposed doubling the period of paid paternity leave to four weeks. As a dad who has relatively recently returned from paternity leave, the only reaction to this news is a weary, sleepless thumbs-up.

Any man who's had a baby, spent a week or two struggling to adjust it to the world (and trying to adjust to its world) will tell you the heartbreak of having to leave him or her at home for the first time to return to work. It's not for no good reason that British dads cast envious looks northwards to Sweden, where new dads take an average of seven weeks off to raise their children.

The lot for British fathers has improved immeasurably since my own parents' generation. A friend tells me of his doctor father taking him and his mother home from the hospital and heading straight out on calls. And the new rules regarding shared parental leave coming in April will help even more, but we've still got a long way to go. (The Swedes brought in gender-neutral parental leave allowance 40 years ago.)

An extra two weeks' paid leave ought to encourage fathers to spend more time with mother and baby. It certainly would have allowed me to justify more time at home. My wife's labour was long and slow. We entered the hospital on the Monday and didn't get home – plus one – until the Friday evening. No birth is typical, but nor is it atypical to spend this long in hospital. So by the time we'd got home, to the easy stage of working out how to make this crying baby stop crying, I'd already used half of my paternity leave. Thankfully, I'd remedied this by booking an extra week's leave from my holiday entitlement.

In my case, I was lucky enough to work for a company big enough to have team members picking up the slack and covering for me – which might not be the case in a smaller business. Or a less forgiving one.

Of course, while few people are going to look a paid-leave-horse in the mouth, the economics of an extra fortnight off work aren't that simple. Labour's plans would obviously only be able to offer the extra two weeks' pay at a statutory rate (they're also planning to increase it by more than £120 a week to £260 a week). That extra £480 obviously isn't to be sniffed at, but it's still only 74 hours' work at the minimum wage at a time when your partner's earning will have drastically dropped. So if you earn more than that, as most people do, you're going to be losing money taking those extra two weeks off unless your company tops it up. Fantastic if you can afford to, not if you can't.

Not surprisingly, a 2014 American study found that men took off exactly as much time to look after their kids as they were paid to. Eighty-six per cent of those men said that they wouldn't take paternity leave unless they were paid at least 70 per cent of their normal salaries.

When working out when to return to work, it doesn't help that paternity (and maternity) pay policies play out like a lottery, depending on your employer. The Independent gave me two weeks' full pay; a friend who had a baby a month after me got three, but just one for the child he'd had while at a previous employer. And, of course, many men don't get any full-paid leave.

Still, we've come a long way. Labour's proposals would keep pushing us towards other European and Scandinavian countries which place a premium on fathers having the time and resources to bond with their children. And that's to be applauded.

And even if Labour's plans never get further than a manifesto pledge, we can take solace from the fact that we're still light years ahead of the United States, which has no statutory paternity (or maternity!) leave, and only 14 per cent of companies offer paid parental leave for dads. Ouch.

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