Labour's expansion of maternity leave would be a leap forward, but is still not far enough

Like the introduction of maternity and shared parental leave before it, the policy is a vast improvement on what we have – but retains many of the status quo's flaws.

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Labour has rolled out a package of measures designed to improve the treatment of women in the workplace. The requirement to report on the gender pay gap will be lowered from organisations with 250 employees or more to organisations with 50 employees or more by the end of next year; there will be a right for all employees to request flexible working patterns; and there will be a new requirement for all workplaces to have a workplace menopause policy, to break the stigma around discussing the difficulties of going through the menopause at work. And there’s a big, eye-catching retail policy attached: a full year of paid maternity leave for mothers, up from seven months.

The lowering of the threshold to report pay gap data will subtly change what the policy reveals. In bigger organisations, it currently reveals two things – it reveals where women are being paid less for the same work, but it can also indicate which organisations have male-dominated or male-only senior leadership teams. In the smaller companies to which the policy is being extended, it may reveal just one: the smaller the company, the more likely that the gender pay gap is to reflect a company that is male-dominated at its upper echelons. And the effectiveness of the right to request flexible working patterns goes hand-in-glove with the effectiveness of Labour’s biggest labour market policy: to significantly increase the presence and power of trades unions in the workplace.

What about that big retail offer – the one that the party will talk about repeatedly: the extension of paid maternity leave from seven months to 12? Well, it builds on the introduction of maternity leave by the 1975 Labour government and the introduction of shared parental leave by the Liberal Democrats in coalition, and assessing it presents the same difficulties as assessing those two policies. On the one hand, these are big steps forward from the status quo: but the status quo is so terrible that the improvement has plenty of flaws.

At present, maternity leave after the first six weeks is capped at £148.68 a week for the next 33 weeks – well short of average income. (For the first six weeks, mothers receive 90 per cent of their pre-tax weekly income.) The mother’s partner can use shared parental leave to take some of that leave, but, again, it’s capped at £148.68 a week whenever it is used. Coupled with outmoded cultural attitudes in most workplaces, and, unsurprisingly, the take-up is low.

Labour is extending the period of paid maternity leave and, concomitantly, increasing the amount of shared parental leave available – but it remains capped at the £148.68 a week level. As with the shared parental leave policy it builds on, it is a big improvement on what came before that will appeal to a lot of voters. But it is a way short of a transformative policy in terms of the economic opportunities of mothers – or increasing the amount of care that fathers do.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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