Parents should be able to negotiate a balance. Photo: Getty
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Shared parental leave will deliver the flexibility that couples want

New rules mean working couples can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay.

The arrival of a new baby is an amazing, life-changing event, and providing flexibility for parents to adjust to their new situation is in the interests of both employees and employers alike.

The introduction of shared parental leave means that, from April, parents will have greater choice in how they share the care of their child and time off work in the first year of their child’s life. Under the new rules, mothers will still take at least two weeks of maternity leave immediately after birth, but after that working couples can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay.

Research published by my department this week underlines the importance of shared parental leave in allowing parents to choose a pattern of leave that fits their own family situation. People are rejecting dated stereotypes about the roles of men and women. Parenting is a shared endeavour and many fathers understandably want to spend more time at home when they are adapting to the demands of a new baby. Shared parental leave will let couples choose how to share their childcare responsibilities in whatever way works best for them, and enable both parents to spend time developing that vital bond with their baby in the early stages.

Our survey found the majority of people believe that childcare should be the equal responsibility of both parents and less than a quarter of people believe that the mother should have main responsibility for childcare. Shared parental leave recognises that flexibility is required in the modern workplace by allowing families to tailor their leave to suit their own circumstances.

A couple might opt for father to take the entire 50 weeks of shared parental leave or to take an extra three or four weeks at home just after baby is born. A mother might take the first four months, with father taking over when she goes back to work, or a couple could opt to stay at home together for up to six months. Each family can now work out what will work best for them.

Shared parental leave will help to create a family-friendly culture in the workplace where it is just as normal for fathers and partners to take on childcare responsibilities as mothers. Mothers and adopters will have real choice about when they return to work, fathers will have more time to bond with their children, children will have better outcomes. And helping new parents negotiate the balance between their work and family responsibilities will benefit employers through greater staff retention and loyalty.

Shared parental leave is good for children, good for parents and good for equality in the workplace. And the policy is just one strand of a wider programme of family friendly measures that the government has introduced to provide greater flexibility and opportunities for parents and families – including extending the right to request flexible working and increased access to childcare and free school meals.

Jo Swinson is Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire and minister for business and women and equalities.  See more information about Shared Parental Leave, and check your eligibility here.

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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.