A study has found that while Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offer the best family-friendly policies, Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, the United Kingdom and Ireland are among the worst.
UNICEF ranked 41 countries from across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU, based on four indicators: paid leave available to mothers; paid leave reserved for fathers; the percentage of childcare enrolment under three; and childcare enrolment between 3 and school age.
According to data from 29 of the 41 countries, UK parents were the most likely to cite cost as the reason for not using formal childcare settings more often.
By contrast, cost was an issue for fewer than one in 100 parents in the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden.
Only half the countries analysed were found to offer at least six months of leave at full pay for mothers, with Estonia offering the most at 85 weeks, followed by Hungary with 72.
On paid leave available to parents, the UK came 34th of the 41 countries surveyed, offering eligible new mothers just six weeks at just 90 per cent of their average weekly pre-tax earnings, and 33 weeks at £148.68 per week, or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings if lower, plus 13 weeks unpaid.
The United States was the only country included in the analysis with no national paid leave policy for mothers or fathers.
The report also found that even in countries where fathers were offered paid leave, many did not take it.
In Japan, the only country that offered at least six months at full pay for fathers, only one in 20 took paid leave in 2017.
In the UK, fathers are entitled to two weeks’ statutory paternity leave at £148.68 per week. Parents are also entitled to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay during the child’s first year, but when the policy was introduced the Government estimated take-up by eligible fathers would only be between 2 and 8 per cent.
UNICEF said family-friendly policies were ‘critical’ for the development of families and socially cohesive societies.
Executive director of UNICEF Henrietta Fore said, ‘There is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life.
‘We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children. And we need the support and influence of the private sector to make this happen.’
In the report, UNICEF called on countries looking to make their policies more family-friendly to:
- provide statutory, nationwide paid parental leave of at least six months for parents
- enable all children to access high-quality, age-appropriate, affordable and accessible childcare centres irrespective of family circumstances
- ensure there is no gap between the end of parental leave and the start of affordable childcare so that children can continue their development without interruption
- ensure that mothers can breastfeed both before and after they return to work by providing lengthy-enough paid parental leave, guaranteed breaks at work and safe and appropriate locations to breastfeed and pump
- collect more and better data on all aspects of family-friendly policies so that programmes and policies can be monitored, and countries compared
Liam Sollis, head of policy and advocacy at Unicef UK, said, ‘Unicef’s research highlights that UK working parents and caregivers still face major challenges balancing work and their caregiving responsibilities.
‘While the UK Government is taking steps to review and raise awareness of family-friendly policies, take-up of shared parental leave, particularly among fathers, remains unacceptably low, and governments and businesses need to do more to tackle the financial, cultural and administrative obstacles that many families face.’