To the point - Thinking must join up

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Men's aspirations to be involved in family life are on the up. There is a new wave of dads emerging who want to wheel buggies, change nappies and join mum and child on the first walk to nursery. They are ready to reap the pleasures, and pains, of hands-on parenthood.


And yet women have so far continued to take the bulk of the responsibilities of raising the next generation. This responsibility means that it is they who face the greater struggle to balance work with family life and it is more often women who pay the financial penalty of leaving a job or working part time. Affordable, reliable, quality childcare remains a significant barrier.

Impact of costly Childcare

Research from the Resolution Foundation has revealed the consequence of this. Its report, Counting the Costs of Childcare, found that high childcare costs mean a woman working full-time could bring home as little as £4 a week in extra pay. This unsurprisingly means large numbers of mothers decide it is simply not worth working, and the economy is robbed of their skills. The authors tell how hard-won progress in tackling the childcare affordability crisis 'has slowed since April 2011, when the Government reduced the percentage of childcare costs that can be covered by the childcare element of Working Tax Credit'.

A right for all

Thankfully, announcements this month from the Deputy Prime Minister will provide much-needed support for couples with new babies. Mr Clegg, undoubtedly aware that the rights of working parents will be a battleground issue for the next general election, has unveiled plans to introduce flexible parental leave.

This means fathers and mothers can choose how to share time away from work in the first year of a new baby's life - including both parents taking leave at the same time if they wish. It is an exciting step towards mothers and fathers fully sharing the challenge of nurturing a child. So it could, in the coming years, mean many more fathers enjoying a trip to the nursery gates.

The announcement came with a Government proposal that flexible working would become a right for all, not just for some. These breakthroughs have been a long time coming, partially because they have for years been wrongly pitched as 'families versus employers' issues.

But the argument is finally being won. The CBI, the UK's leading business organisation, responded to Mr Clegg's announcement by not only agreeing that 'flexible parental leave is a good way to support working families', but also that 'businesses realise that this is good for retaining talent'. Big and small companies that are part of our Family Friendly scheme tell us the same. These moves are a hugely welcome step in helping create a more family friendly society and supporting those who care for children.

Mixed messages

However, the take-up of leave is likely to remain low compared to other countries while families face major financial pressures such as rising costs and reductions in benefits. Extending paid paternity leave would have been one way of beginning to address this.

The Government's own thinking on this doesn't seem to join up: at the same time as these welcome announcements, comes the plan to create a new category of employment that will force some workers to give up family employment rights - including maternity rights - in exchange for company shares. This threatens to reinforce the myth that such rights are burdensome to business and the UK economy. It could undermine the Government's intentions to create a business culture that supports flexible working and family members in the workforce.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, can only achieve his vision of a family-friendly society if all of his policies pass the familyfriendly test, not just some. What we need from the Government is consistent leadership on the benefits of flexible working - for the sake of business, families and the newborns of 2013.



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