Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the National Childbirth Trust (PL 16)


    —  The NCT supports the implementation of the EC Directive on Parental Leave as an important component of "family friendly" social and employment policies.

    —  Parents should be entitled to at least three months, parental leave, an early proportion of which should be non-transferable, the remaining being an additional family entitlement which can be shared between parents as they choose (the Scandinavian model).

    —  Leave should be paid as a high proportion of the employee's own wages and not less than the current rate of payment for maternity leave. This will enable and encourage men to take leave in their own right.

    —  The cost of payment should be shared between employers and government.

    —  The scheme should be flexible but guidance for implementation in the workplace should also be clear and simple with scope for local consultation about that implementation.

    —  The scheme should be promoted so that both employees and employers are aware of their new rights and responsibilities.

    —  The scheme should be monitored.


  1.1  The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) exists to enable all parents to have an experience of pregnancy, birth and early parenting that enriches their lives and provides a sound foundation for parenthood. The NCT offers information and support in pregnancy, childbirth and early parenthood. We aim to give every parent the chance to make informed choices. We try to ensure that our services, activities and membership are fully accessible to everyone.

  1.2  The NCT campaigns for improvements in health and social care for expectant parents and for those with babies and young children (under our bylaws, our prime focus is on pregnancy and the first year of life and we define early parenthood as extending through the first three years but never beyond five years). We also develop and campaign for comprehensive and accessible information for parents about pregnancy, birth and early parenthood. The NCT has been a member of the Parental Leave Campaign since it was set up in 1997 and supports the separate memorandum submitted by that group.

  1.3  The NCT is a membership organisation with more than 30,000 members in some 400 branches throughout the United Kingdom. Over recent years, the number of male linked members has grown to 6,000.


  2.1  The NCT welcomes the Government's commitment to the implementation of the Directive on Parental Leave[56], together with other EC legislation concerned with employment, most relevantly, the EC Working Time Directive and the EC Part-time Working Directive.

  2.2  The NCT believes that the EC Directive on Parental Leave represents an attempt by the European Commission to enable men and women to "reconcile their work responsibilities and family obligations". Its emphasis is on encouraging the introduction of flexible ways of organising work and time, better suited to the changing needs of society and to the individual needs of workers. It also aims to increase women's participation in the workforce and to encourage men to "assume an equal share of family responsibilities....", for example by being "encouraged to take parental leave by means such as awareness programmes"[57].

  2.3  A large proportion of NCT members work outside the home, either full or part time, and have an interest in how the Directive will be implemented in practice. Evidence from our Access Project collected in 1998 shows that 68 per cent of women attending NCT antenatal classes were in full time employment. Only 16 per cent were not currently employed and 15 per cent were employed part-time.


  3.1  Payment, uptake and flexibility.

  3.1.1  Most countries in Western Europe provide parental leave, ie Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The UK and Eire are notable by their exception[58]. Period of leave entitlement ranges from a minimum of six months to three years, with an average of around 2 years and can be taken either full or part time or on a time account system (eg a shorter working day).

  3.1.2  In European countries with a parental leave scheme, the majority of parents who take parental leave take it within the first year of the child's life.

  3.1.3  In most countries in Northern Europe and Scandinavia with parental leave, leave is paid in some form, either as an allowance, benefit or wage compensation. However, in Southern European countries with parental leave (with the exception of Italy), leave is unpaid and uptake rates are thought to be negligible[59]. Rate of take-up is thus clearly linked to the degree to which leave is paid.

  3.1.4  In the Netherlands, where there is basic statutory entitlement to parental leave, the rate of uptake in sectors which provide paid leave is 75 per cent, 45 per cent in sectors that provide partial paid leave, and 7 per cent in sectors which provide unpaid leave only.

  3.1.5  In Sweden, where leave is paid (75 per cent—85 per cent of wages in the first 240 days) and partly non-transferable (ie one month is non-transferable between parents while the rest is shared as "family leave") there is a 78 per cent uptake among men. This rate of uptake by men, together with that in Norway (33 per cent) is unique in Europe. It is thought that the non-transferable nature of leave and the high rate of wage remuneration are major contributing factors.

  3.1.6  In countries which offer little or no financial incentive, uptake amongst men is relatively low. However, because of the complex interaction between other contributing factors, correlation between rate of uptake by men and the proportion of wage/benefit compensation does not appear to be entirely linear (detailed figures are included in the Demos report already cited). However, it is noted that a high degree of wage compensation is generally associated with high uptake rates.

  3.1.7  In Northern European countries which monitor parental leave, uptake amongst women is universally high (90-99 per cent) , except in the Netherlands where it is relatively low (40 per cent). In Southern Europe where the gender pay gap is particularly marked and leave is unpaid, fathers , particularly those on a low income, cannot afford to take leave. Achieving similar rates of uptake by men and women is important to minimise discrimination against mothers in the workplace. A study in Copenhagen revealed that 40 per cent of small private companies worried about taking on women with young children because of the risk of them taking leave, since women are more likely to take leave than men.

  3.1.8  To conclude, European parental leave systems work best when

    —  employers and employees have maximum flexibility;

    —  when leave is paid; and

    —  a proportion of a family's leave entitlement is non-transferable between parents, ie the Scandinavian model.

  3.2  The effect of cultural and gender relations on uptake by men.

  3.2.1  It appears that uptake is high in countries which have a high commitment to promoting gender equality in the home and the workplace. In countries in which it is assumed that mothers will use parental leave as an extended form of maternity leave and that men do not want to take up parental leave other than for a brief period soon after childbirth, parental leave is unpaid and unused.

  3.2.2  Moreover, even in Sweden, where there is a statutory right to flexible paid parental leave for at least a year, a high uptake by men has only recently been achieved after a 25 year effort to promote gender equality, backed by a persistent government campaign to increase uptake[60]. Workplace culture, ie anticipated disapproval from management and fellow workers, was an important factor in discouraging Swedish men from taking parental leave.

  3.2.3  It seems that well educated men working in the public sector with partners with high status jobs are more likely to take leave. Greater effort to promote uptake in Sweden has therefore been focused on non-professional workers amongst whom take-up is relatively low.[61]


  4.1  Government policy.

  4.1.1  When the Employment Relations Bill becomes law, parents (mothers and fathers) will have a right to up to three months' time off as parental leave and time off for domestic incidents such as coping with a crisis for elderly relatives. Parents' work contracts will be unaffected during both parental and maternity leave and employees will have the right to return to the same or an equivalent post upon return, as agreed in the EC Directive.

  4.1.2  The Regulations which will be needed to underpin this right should be clear and simple, and allow for maximum flexibility so that they encourage employers and employees to make arrangements which best suit their circumstances. When they refer to "parents", they should not in fact seem to mean "mothers".

  4.1.3  To be effective, parental need should be paid. The introduction of a statutory entitlement to unpaid parental leave would mostly benefit working mothers in dual high-income families who could afford to take parental leave while their partners continued to work.

  4.1.4  In contrast, low and middle-income families, whether lone or dual parent, will have a tax incentive in the form of the Working Families Tax Credit and the Childcare Tax Credit. Provided that both parents stay in employment (at least 16 hours per week) and purchase registered childcare and the family income is less than between £22,000—£30,000 per year (depending on the number of children per family) they will be eligible for tax credits. It is predicted that such families would lose their tax credit during a leave period if either parent took unpaid leave[62]. Therefore the introduction of paid parental leave is essential if low and middle income families are to take and benefit from it.

  4.2  Employer issues.

  4.2.1  Anecdotally, employers appear to have an over anxious resistance to parental leave based on a reluctance to fund and administer leave schemes and concern about finding suitable cover for absent employees.[63]

  4.2.2  Until recently small employers in particular have opposed the Directive[64]. A recent MORI poll of Britain's top 50 companies showed that although 65 per cent agreed that their company should do more to help working parents and 74 per cent accept that there is a recognised business case (ie in terms of productivity, competitiveness and financial gain) for companies to introduce family friendly policies, practice, however, does not reflect stated attitudes. Only 2-5 per cent provide any sort of financial or practical childcare support and little is known about family-friendly work practices. There is no current research to indicate whether, and to what extent, parental leave is provided by UK employers—it would be reasonable to conclude that there are no more than a handful of such schemes in existence.[65]

  4.3  Public awareness and employee issues.

  4.3.1  In a national study of social attitudes in 1995, 69 per cent of women and 61 per cent of men agreed that "there should be a right to full parental leave for men as well as women when a baby is born", and 78 per cent of men and 84 per cent of women agreed that "men should be able to take a short break when a baby is born".[66] Apart from this, the current level of awareness and support for the type of parental leave proposed in the EC Directive in the general population is unknown.

  4.3.2  A recent survey of 5,500 linked members of the NCT (most of whom are assumed to be male) indicate that there is good support for both paid and unpaid leave, although more are inclined to support a campaign for unpaid parental leave (79 per cent) and two weeks paternity leave than for three months paid parental leave (61 per cent). However, given the likely socio-economic characteristics of the sample and the low response rate (6 per cent) it would be inappropriate to generalise from these results. A sheet summarising the anecdotal comments from those surveyed about work, money and time is appended (to follow this copy). This bears out aspirations about sharing family responsibilities and for family friendly employment.

  4.3.3  The media have focused on employers' lack of awareness about their responsibility to implement forthcoming parental leave legislation, and, rather negatively, the potential abuse of the system by predicting frequent job-hopping by employees attempting to accumulate more leave than they are entitled to. A voucher system which could be carried from one employment to another could be devised and could assist in ensuring overall flexibility.

  4.3.4  Families will have to decide how, and if, parental leave should be taken in relation to maternity leave. Parents, particularly men, may be worried that taking parental leave may adversely affect their career development and may be discouraged from taking leave in what remains a fiercely competitive work culture in which British men's working hours are the longest in Europe.

  4.3.5  Significant awareness raising and a radical shift in cultural attitudes about gender roles in work and family life may be a prerequisite for high uptake of parental leave. As recently as 1992, 46 per cent of 35-44 year-old men and 70 per cent of men aged 45-54 per cent thought that "a husband's job is to earn money and a wife's job is to look after the home and family".[67] More optimistically, if we can assume that they have not changed their minds, a large proportion of the 65 per cent of 18-34 year-old men who disagreed with this statement at the time will by now have had families and some will be in senior managerial positions with the opportunity to change workplace culture and negative attitudes to fathers' who to play a more active role in the care of their children.

  4.3.6  In addition, before a national statutory parental leave strategy can be implemented effectively, it will be necessary to establish whether the majority of British men genuinely want to be more involved in family life, or if this sentiment is primarily felt by only a minority. It is apparent that most of the public dialogue on this issue involves mainly well educated, professional men of reasonable income who are highly committed to social change.

  4.4  Who should pay?

  4.4.1  It could be argued that since the welfare of children may be looked upon as a collective responsibility, and society at large will benefit from the direct and indirect long term effects of parental leave, both government, employers, and individual parents should bear the cost of parental leave.

  4.4.2  In a recent study of employees' and employers' attitudes,[68] the majority preference of both groups was for joint funding of parental leave by government, employers and employees with some sort of social insurance scheme such as those used in France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

  4.4.3  The Federation of Small Businesses has been reported to be considering acceptance of the introduction of paid parental leave (at least in principle) on the condition that it is mainly funded by government (around 80 per cent) with an employer contribution of approximately 20 per cent.[69]

  4.5  Monitoring.

  4.5.1  The new scheme should be monitored carefully and in detail following implementation, in particular to analyse the effectiveness of promotion to employees, the guidance to employers and take up by both mothers and fathers. This would appear to be a suitable role for an independent Commission to be appointed by the appropriate Secretary of State.


  5.1  The Future of the Family.

  5.1.1  At the June 1997 AGM, the NCT launched its position paper on parenting in response to the Labour Party's discussion paper on the subject. A copy of the final version of this paper is appended (to follow this copy). Two key policy objectives stated in the paper are:

    —  the introduction of 10 days' statutory paid paternity leave; and

    —  implementation of the 1996 EC Directive on parental leave.

Paid paternity leave

  5.1.2  In 1997, in response to an invitation, the NCT joined forces with by "Our Baby" Magazine to petition for two weeks paid paternity leave. This reflected the relevant policy objective in the NCT policy paper on parenting and the views of our members as revealed in the 1996 NCT/RCM fathers survey.[70]

Implementation of the EC Directive on parental leave

  5.1.3  In November 1997, the Maternity Alliance invited the NCT, with a group of maternity and parents' rights organisations, social researchers and Trades Unions to discuss the issue of parental leave with a view to plan a strategy to lobby government no the issue of parental leave.

  5.1.4  The requirements of the EC Directive on parental leave were discussed and a preliminary attempt was made to achieve a consensus on the specific terms and conditions of entitlements within the framework of the Directive. After lengthy discussion on the lessons learned from parental leave schemes in Europe, and considering the cultural and economic parameters in the UK and the potential for achieving such schemes in the UK, a preliminary list of principles was proposed, as follows.

  5.2  Maternity Alliance Policy Group suggestions for the implementation of the EC Parental Leave Directive—November 1997:

    —  Each child should have the opportunity to be looked after for the first year of life by either or both parents.

    —  Leave should be paid.

    —  Both parents, or a nominated carer, should be entitled to parental leave.

    —  Parental leave should be flexible.

    —  Single parents should get double the entitlement of two parent families.

    —  Parental leave should be paid by the state, or shared by employer and state.

    —  There should be no qualifying period for entitlement to parental leave, ie employees should be able to claim it from day one in employment.

    —  Take-up, particularly by men, should be monitored by government after implementation of the directive.

    —  Small businesses should be offered a financial incentive by government.

    —  Entitlement to maternity leave should be preserved.

  5.4  Equality Perspective

  5.4.1  The NCT supports endeavours to create a cultural climate in which men and women are both able to take responsibility for childcare, while acknowledging that there is a special relationship between the mother and child in the first year, particularly when breastfeeding. The option to Increase maternity leave by the use of parental leave might encourage the continuation of breastfeeding with the enhanced health benefits this brings to mother and baby.

  5.4.2  The sharing of responsibility can be seen as an "equality" perspective. Such an approach might also be supported by a child rights' perspective (supported by research on children's views and experiences of being parented, psychological outcome research, Freudian related psychoanalytic theory and the beliefs of certain groups within the Women's and Men's Movements).

  5.4.3  Active parenting by both mothers and fathers in the early years, is believed to be essential for good mental health in childhood and later adulthood. Additionally, there are long term economic benefits ascribed to better parenting from higher educational achievement to lower crime.

June 1999

56   Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave concluded by UNICEF, CEEP and the ETUC. Official Journal of the European Communities 19.6.96 No L 145 Vol 3 (3-9). Back

57   ibid page 6. Back

58   Wilkinson H (1997) Time Out-the costs and benefits of paid parental leave London: Demos. Back

59   ibid pp 77-78. Back

60   Bonde H (1995) The silent gender must have a voice: Towards new masculinities-Report of the Nordic conference on men and gender equality. Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers. Back

61   Haas L (1992) Equal parenthood and social policy: lessons from a study of a parental leave in Sweden: quoted in Wilkinson H (1997)- see 3.4. Back

62   Parents at Work, June 1998-oral communication. Back

63   Sheila Wild, Equal Opportunities Commission, November 1997-oral communication. Back

64   Lucy Anderson, TUC, November 1997-oral communication. Back

65   Lewis Emery, Labour Research Department, June 1998-oral communication. Back

66   The Healy Centre (1995) Planning for Social Change 1995-1996. London: The Healy Centre. Back

67   Jowell R et al (eds) 1992 British Social Attitudes: 9th report. Aldershot: Social and Community Planning Research and Dartmouth Publishing, as quoted in Wilkinson H (1997)-see 3. Back

68   see 3. Back

69   Sheila Wild, Equal Opportunities Commission, May 1998-oral communication. Back

70   Newburn M and MacMillan M (1998) Help, new dad emerging. The Practising Midwife Vol 1(1) pp 17-19. Back

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