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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.