Clegg’s paternity plan: a small step forward

To encourage more men to care for children, the coalition must tackle the gender pay gap.

Nick Clegg's announcement today that the government will go ahead with the implementation in April of Labour's plans to allow parents to share between them six months of maternity leave (three months of it paid) is an important one. This is not so much because of the reform itself, which is largely symbolic and will have limited practical effect, but because of what it says about the future of family policy.

Allowing parents to share leave between them is fine in principle, but for most families it will make little economic sense for the father to take time off work. The gender pay gap means that, for the vast majority of households, it is rational for mothers to stay at home. That is why the government itself estimates that only 4-8 per cent of eligible fathers (10,000 to 20,000 individuals) will take up the new right. And though the leave remains transferrable – for mothers to transfer to fathers – it reinforces assumptions of women as primary carers and men as breadwinners.

That is not to deny that increased choice and flexibility for families are important. But a liberal approach alone will not tackle the structural inequalities that shape those choices – in particular, the fundamental inequality in the division of work and care responsibilities between men and women. To tackle these inequalities, we need a more ambitious and extensive reform agenda that simultaneously advances childcare, employment rights and equal pay at work.

At the same time, elsewhere in government policy, spending cuts are pulling policy backward. Cuts in the childcare element of the tax credit reduce work incentives, while the design of the Universal Credit penalises dual-earner families. Meanwhile, Sure Start centres are being closed or refocused on poorer families, and despite the welcome expansion of nursery places for two-year-olds, support for children in their first year of life is being reduced as the baby element of the tax credit and Sure Start Maternity Grants are abolished.

For all that, however, Clegg is right to focus on narrowing the gap between the rights of women and men in our parental leave entitlements. The gap between what mothers and fathers can take in the UK – currently two weeks' paternity leave paid at the statutory rate for men, versus 12 months for women (nine months of that paid at the statutory rate) – is among the widest in the OECD. Unless fathers have more rights to paid leave, more fundamental inequalities will persist. The modern route to gender equality is to extend fathers' entitlements.

Under current fiscal constraints, bigger reforms – affordable universal childcare, better paid parental leave, and the "use it or lose it" fathers' leave that Clegg points to – are off the agenda for the foreseeable future. But it is important that policymakers do not simply account for these as public expenditure or business costs. With better childcare and parental leave rights, more women are enabled to work and use their skills productively after having children, rather than take up poorly paid part-time work. This increases the employment rate and improves the tax take. Full employment in the future will rest in large part on these foundations, which will therefore be fundamental to the affordability of the welfare state.

There is a broader political lesson here, too. Across Europe, the decade before the financial crash brought big increases in the female employment rate, particularly in the Catholic member states such as Spain. Countries with historically low levels of childcare provision, such as Germany, took a "Nordic" turn, significantly boosting their state support for families. In part, this was motivated by natalist concerns about declining birth rates. But it also reflected pressure from female voters who were no longer prepared to trade off their career aspirations against their desire to have children.

This dynamic is at work in different ways in all advanced economies. It provides an underlying momentum to reforms that strengthen family-friendly employment rights, childcare provision and gender equality in the workplace. The process of securing these goals is most advanced in the Scandinavian countries, which started down this path in the 1970s. Elsewhere, the "revolution is incomplete", as the sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen puts it. But everywhere the pressure is the same: families want more rights to flexible work and childcare support, with more equity between men and women.

That is why the conventional conservative model of male breadwinners and female care-givers, buttressed by marriage tax breaks, is a political dead end. It has no underlying support from the deeper social and economic trends that are remaking our society. On this issue, at least, the future is progressive.

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder