Maternity leave law has problems that won’t be solved by adding dads | Sheila Lawlor

Allowing fathers to share leave is a mere soundbite – mothers will still get left behind, and it will be a headache for business

Women beware! Across the political spectrum, a consensus has broken out on the joys of maternity leave. And now the latest twist to “family-friendly” law is to encourage fathers to share the leave, if reports are to be trusted, after about a month. That may suit the family-focused rhetoric of the political classes. But more shared leave will not solve the problems of the conveyor belt system on which many working mothers find themselves after the birth of their babies, entitled to a year’s leave and a job to return to.

Maternity payment, generous to begin with at 90% of average income, drops to £135 a week for 33 weeks. Back at work within the statutory year, earnings tend to decline comparative to those who have not been on leave. There’s evidence to suggest that it can take up to 15 years after the birth of each child to get back to where they were. Some have to drop hours or move to part-time work or a less demanding job in order to cope with family as well as work. Over a lifetime’s work, the story for many women in ordinary jobs will be of smaller earnings, missed pension contributions and downward professional mobility.

Adding more leave for fathers to the rota may be good for the Treasury if a high-earning woman returns rapidly to work. But it adds to the difficulties for business. At a time of recession and job losses, employers will have double the uncertainty and the costs this brings to business: two potential employees to find cover for where previously there was one; two jobs to be kept open and benefits paid; two lots of replacement staff to be trained – then let go.

The costs of this scheme may have been massaged by Nick Clegg to a “manageable” round figure reported as a mere £8m start-up (and £22m for the new IT system to prevent fraud). But the true cost will be to jobs and markets in a western labour market that continues to award more time off and more benefit for less work. The UK, like its EU neighbours, is pricing itself out of a global market for labour and goods: we pay ourselves too much and produce too little.

So what’s to be done? If business is to grow, the UK debate must move to the structural reform of the labour market. Where should the law stop and business begin? In the UK, cover for maternity leave for working women was introduced in 1911 and there’s no reason why that should stop in a better system.

But the real problem for many women is not just poorer lives they face after a year’s leave; it’s how to afford a career break to spend the early years with their children which many want (75% in one recent poll), a break followed by good training and a return to the labour market on equal terms – as happens now for female doctors and many lawyers.

If that’s to happen, we must return the national insurance system to William Beveridge’s contributory principle without which (he judged) the welfare state could not work. Contribution in time of earning would provide income when earnings cease in a personal pot of entitlement. The Beveridge model must now be adapted to the longer lives – and working lives – people will lead. So, a five- or 10-year career break out of 40 working years is a relatively short and affordable break to be covered by a lifetime’s contributions. For maternity benefit, the sum might not be huge, but a benefit based on contributions over such a period would be a start.

Having a job and having a decent income can’t come from the state. But what the state can do is to make it possible for business to flourish and people to earn. Our leaders need now to see through the PR, and the wishlists and soundbites in which they dress “family-friendly legislation”. The reality is of an expensive and overbearing state, unfriendly to business, unfriendly to women.

Sheila Lawlor © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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