Today is one of those days when I am so glad we are in Government. So glad that we have a leader who understands the realities of 21st century family life and who doesn't just leave it to the girls to talk about childcare.So glad that he is in a position to make a real difference, to give families a proper choice.
Nick Clegg has announced a radical shake up in parental leave. Note, I say parental leave, not maternity leave. This is because there is no assumption that the woman will take more than the first two weeks. After that, it's up to parents to decide for themselves who, if anyone, stays home to look after a new baby. Not only that, but men will, for the first time, have a right to time off to go to two ante natal appointments, which are most likely to be the scans. And, on top of that, he's recognised that babies don't need any less care because they're adopted and so has equalised the entitlements for parental leave.
This, to me, is what liberalism is all about - removing barriers to personal freedom. Why on earth should the state make a value judgement that only the mother should be entitled to time off when a child is born? If it were my choice, then I'd be the one who took the leave, but why should other people be constrained to that?
The beauty of Nick's proposals is that everyone wins. Parents win because they have more choice. Employers win because they have happier employees and have more chance of keeping talented women who might otherwise end up leaving because of the inflexibility of the current system. Of course, it's a no brainer that if you have happier employees, they work better.
Let's have a look at what Nick had to say in his speech making the announcement this morning. You can read the whole thing here on the Deputy Prime Minister's website.
Our economy needs women working
Despite rising since the 1960s, female employment has stalled over the last decade. It is, however, a problem we can no longer afford. Just as working women drove up living standards in the latter half of the 20th Century, after the Second World War... The evidence suggests that living standards in the first half of the 21st Century will need to be driven by working women once again.
So this absence of women from our economy is costing us dearly. If the United Kingdom had, for example, the same proportion of female entrepreneurs as the United States...We would see an extra £42bn on GDP.
Women in this country are now better qualified than men....
...The problem comes down to a whole range of clapped out rules and arrangements: Whether that’s the balance between maternity and paternity leave; Or the childcare that’s available; Or the way our tax and welfare systems don’t fully reward part-time work. Arrangements which assume that families are still comprised of one bread winner and one homemaker; Mum in the kitchen; dad in the office.Even though the reality is that, in many families, both parents work...Often juggling busy lives... Often working part-time...Often without relatives or friends close by who can help out.
Why is it a problem?
...whichever way you look at it, the solution ends up being the mother doing more of the caring, and the father doing more of the earning.
She gets the year long maternity leave; After that, the expectation is she’ll continue to be the primary carer – so she’s the one who goes part-time. That, very often, means she ends up on lower pay, with fewer chances for promotion... And it’s at exactly this point that the pay gap begins to widen – and just last week two separate reports reminded us what a problem that still is.
Then, as time passes, as more children arrive, women get caught in a kind of cycle: Have a baby, work less, so earn less. Earn less and – because childcare costs so much, because your partner is now earning more than you – work less.
Even when the children are grown up, working full time isn’t possible for many women. With the population living longer, we’ve seen the emergence of the so-called sandwich generation: Women who spend their thirties raising young children...And their fifties caring for elderly parents. And for single mothers it can be even harder.
They have a greater need to go to work, but much less help at home ......It’s heartbreaking to see fathers missing out on being with their children. It’s heartbreaking to watch women lower their ambitions for themselves.Equality’s promise must not end at 30.
So, what are we going to do about it?
I can announce today that, from 2015, the UK will shift to an entirely new system of flexible parental leave.
Under the new rules, a mother will be able to trigger flexible leave at any point – if and when she feels ready.
That means that whatever time is left to run on her original year can be taken by her partner instead. Or they can chop up the remaining time between them – taking it in turns. Or they can take time off together – whatever suits them.
The only rule is that no more than 12 months can be taken in total; With no more than 9 months at guaranteed pay.
And, of course, couples will need to be open with their employers, giving them proper notice.
Dads will have a right to go to two ante-natal appointments
You can kind of tell Nick's done this...
So that they can be more involved from the earliest stages of pregnancy. Lots of fathers will tell you that these moments are when it can start to feel real for them. Whether that’s at the 12 week scan – the first time they see their child on a screen. Or a bit further down the track – when they can find out if they’re having a girl or a boy.
Discrimination against adoptive parents will end
Right now, you have to be in post for 6 months before you're entitled to leave for an adopted child and get less pay. Nick's plan will give adoptive parents equal rights.
Flexible working for all
At the moment, people with children under 16 can request changes to their working pattern to help care for them. That's fine, as far as it goes, but what happens if your children are older. Maybe you want to help look after your grandchildren when they are growing up. Maybe you have parents who need looking after. Flexible working can help you bring much needed balance to all the demands on you. It's good for employers, too. Employers win, too, as this 2007 BIS study shows. Flexible working creates a productive and motivated workforce, saves employers money from reduced absenteeism and lower turnover costs, and allows them to retain highly skilled staff.
Never miss an opportunity to mention the tax threshold going up because of the Liberal Democrats
Nick never knowingly misses an opportunity to mention that Liberal Democrats have cut taxes for low and middle earners. He did this today. He also mentioned how the Coalition is extending free nursery provision to the most deprived two year olds to give them the best start in life and reduce childcare costs:
The Coalition has delivered 15 free hours a week in a nursery or with a childminder for all three and four year olds.
We said we’d provide those hours to 2 year olds from the most-hard pressed homes, too. So the 20% at the bottom of the income ladder. And we’re going to go further – extending it to cover around 40%.
A practical, radical leader
I've been slightly annoyed to see some commentators say that this is Nick pushing for women's votes post Obama. Well, you can't make up a policy initiative like this in a week. In fact, this has been Liberal Democrat policy since 2009 when Conference passed the Real Women policy paper.
Nick didn't write that paper, but he's been pivotal in developing the ideas within it. On issues like childcare, making sure disadvantaged kids get extra money to help with their education, mental health, things which have a huge impact on everyday life, Nick has come up with practical, relevant and radical ideas.
For Liberal Democrats, this is a huge achievement and something that shows that we are making lives better, giving people more choice and opportunity. We should be very proud of our leader.