Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Ruth Lister, Professor of Social Policy (PL 6)


  This brief memorandum makes the case for paid parental leave as part of a more inclusive social insurance scheme, and not confined to low income parents, in the longer term. It also argues for an extended period of paid parental leave, part of which is reserved for fathers, in order to encourage paternal use of parental leave.

  1.  The introduction of parental leave in the UK represents an important step in the development of policies which enable parents to combine their paid work and family care responsibilities. As such, it should be seen as part of the nexus of social citizenship rights which support parenting and promote gender equality.

  2.  However, if parental leave is to be effective, it needs to be paid. Public discussion hitherto has focused mainly on the inability of low income mothers to take the leave, if it is unpaid. This is a very important issue. In addition, though, the disincentive effect of unpaid leave cuts both ways. If parental leave is unpaid, it is also highly unlikely that fathers will take any of the leave. Cross-national evidence indicates that financial considerations act as a significant deterrent to male use of parental leave. One of the purposes of parental, as opposed to maternity, leave is to encourage fathers as well as mothers to spend time with their very young children.

  3.  It has been suggested in some quarters that paid leave should be introduced on a means-tested basis, possibly linked to the working families tax credit. While this might represent a politically viable compromise in the short term, it should not, in my view, be seen as a longer term solution. Confining parental leave to low income parents confuses issues of horizontal and vertical equity and does not address the issue of paternal use of the leave. Parental leave is a policy designed, in part, to strengthen the position of those with children in the labour market and to encourage a more equitable sharing of the responsibility for care of children between mothers and fathers. These goals are relevant at every income level.

  4.  An alternative, longer term, approach would be that recommended by the Commission for Social Justice, namely parental leave insurance, as part of a more inclusive social insurance scheme. This would be consistent with the Government's extension of maternity allowance to women below the lower earnings limit, earning at least £30. While the Commission did not believe that parental leave insurance could be recommended immediately, it argued that "it would do so much to improve the quality of children's and parents" lives that it should be accepted in principle and introduced gradually[6].

  5.  The Commission also raised the possibility of building in an earnings-related element in order to encourage fathers' use of parental leave. Another, option, which might be considered in the longer term, within the context of a more extended paid parental leave period, is to reserve a period of the leave for fathers. Such a policy has been adopted in, for instance, Norway and Sweden. In Norway, it did appear to have a significant impact on fathers' take-up of the leave. As well as making it easier for fathers to take parental leave, it sends out a signal that there is a societal assumption that they will do so. This could be important in encouraging greater male involvement in domestic caring responsibilities.

June 1999

6   Commission on Social Justice (1994), Social Justice. Strategies for National Renewal, Vintage, p241 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 2 November 1999