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The MP who introduced shared parental leave is far from finished when it comes to dragging the workplace into the 21st century
She might not appreciate the gendered title but Jo Swinson was undoubtedly the midwife that delivered shared parental leave.
As a business minister in the coalition government she steered the legislation into law. Since then thousands of dads have had the opportunity to spend more time with their kids in those precious early days and weeks. And more mums have been able to get back to work when they want.
But the latest and best estimate is that just one percent of eligible dads used shared parental leave last year. And that’s why on the fourth anniversary of the policy coming into force she’s gone back for more. She’s out of government now (she was briefly out of parliament between the 2015 and 2017 elections) but she’s still keen to make working life fit with real life for parents.
So she’s got two potential new laws on the go at the moment. One that would force firms to publicise their parental pay and parental leave policies and a new one that would expand shared parental leave (SPL) to more parents.
Workingdads caught up with Swinson to talk about what the change she’s achieved and the change she still wants to see.
Talking about SPL she says, “I’m very glad we did it, I think it was a success to the extent that we thought it would be.” However she accepts that take up has not reached a critical mass yet.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it got to the stage like where we are now when a man says he’s not planning to be at the birth of his child? That’s a decision a couple might make and it might happen, but under normal circumstances if a man said ‘I just don’t want to be there’ people would say ‘that’s a bit unusual’. Yet 40 years ago it would be unusual for a man to be at the birth of his child.
“Even now if you said at work you were having a baby and you said you were coming into work the next day people would say ‘really?’ So even though we’ve only got two weeks of paternity leave, taking some sort of paternity leave is now the norm.
“I’d love it to be the situation where it was seen as an unusual decision not to take a bit more parental leave.
“Everyone I’ve met who’s done SPL has enjoyed it. And I’m not surprised because for all that they are tiring and messy and all the rest of it – babies are delightful.”
She cites the twin barriers to taking up SPL as finance and culture. Plenty of dads look at the gap between their normal salary and the standard parental pay of £148 per week and calculate that they simply can’t afford it. But Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire in Scotland and tipped by many to take over as leader of the Lib Dems this summer, reckons culture – men feeling they will be judged by work colleagues or peers for committing to childcare – is a huge factor too. “I’ve been on the advisory group of a research study looking at SPL and they recruited people from antenatal clinics, some using SPL some not, and they found that finance was not the biggest barrier,” she explains.
And that’s where her backbench bills come in. The latest overcomes another huge barrier to SPL take up – not being eligible for it.
She’s echoed another proposal brought by Labour MP Tracy Brabin but buried by parliamentary procedure that would extend shared parental leave to self-employed people who are currently excluded from the scheme. And Swinson’s backbench bill would make paternity leave and pay a day one right in employment, replacing the current rules that dictate men have to clock up six months service before they can take paid paternity leave.
And the parental pay reporting idea would force big firms to publicise their policies on parental pay and leave. The hope is that companies will jazz up their offer to attract the best talent. The logic goes that more generous paternity packages will encourage more men to take more leave and the whole process becomes normalised.
Swinson says, “Thing is, it’s quite difficult for business to disagree with. What’s the argument for not having this information on your website?
“It doesn’t really cost money because especially for these big companies, every company with over 250 employees will have a website and they have to have a policy even if the policy is just giving you the statutory entitlement, it just means writing that on their website.
“And the point is that if they’ve got a more generous policy then the reason they’ve got a more generous policy it’s because it’s good for their employees, it’s something they’re proud of, in which case make people aware of it and people who might want to work for your company aware of it. There’s no good reason for companies not to want this information to be made public. ‘We don’t want people to know we’re a bit stingier than our competitors is not a good reason.’
“It’s a good merger of SPL and gender pay gap reporting.”
Gender pay gap reporting was Swinson’s other big policy win as a minister. With time ticking down on the coalition government she forced the Conservatives to accept a clause that requires big firms to reveal their gender pay gaps as the price for getting a final business bill through parliament.
On the face of it it’s not a policy that benefits men but Swinson is clear. “A fairer workplace helps men,” she says. “ It also requires companies to be a lot more thoughtful about their pay decisions and what their pay policies might be. It might not help all men. You might find that men who are currently really good at going in and demanding really high pay rises and massive bonuses and all that are not helped by this. But there’s plenty of men who aren’t necessarily like that, who don’t have that level of bravado. Often that’s not always built through the performance, we know it’s not, that’s the problem. It’ll help people to have pay that is genuinely more reflective of people’s contribution to an organisation rather than their negotiating tactics so that will be helpful to lots of people, women obviously but lots of men as well.”
All these measures ultimately come back to Swinson’s overarching agenda – to look again at the world of work. Her workplace in Westminster might seem particularly archaic but it’s not unusual in being rooted in the past. She’s keen to think again about our priorities as a society.
“The more sensible way of organising society and maximising economic output is to have more happy individuals,” she explains. “There is good evidence that if men spend more time with their baby in the first year they are more likely to be more involved with the baby later on and there is strong evidence that involved fathers have better mental health, better happiness and well-being and the children benefit as well. And then on top of that there’s evidence about productivity at work being linked to happiness.”
And men have it in their gift to change things
“For far too long parent has equalled mother,” she says. “We should talk about working parents, working dads!
“The role that men, particularly dads, can play in this in talking about and being open about the time they spend with their children, that is just one of the most important things because it gives other men permission.”
So men that support Swinson’s stance can write to their MP and ask them to back her bills when they reach parliament. But it seems the most important step to take is to simply be the working dad you want to be.