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Time to 'shatter' the notion that childcare is for mothers, says minister
By John Bingham 5th February 2013
Jo Swinson, the business minister, said it could eventually become the norm for fathers to take weeks or months off to look after babies in the first year of their child’s life.
She was speaking as the Coalition published an overhaul of law relating to the family, including plans for fathers to share their partner’s maternity leave.
The new Children and Families Bill also includes changes to child contact arrangements in divorces to build in an assumption of “shared” parenting rather than one – usually the mother – having residence and the other having to press for contact with their child.
There are also measures to speed up adoption including ending racial "matching" of would-be adoptive families and greater rights for young people with special educational needs.
But among the most controversial aspects of the bill will be the plan to allow couples to carve up almost a year’s maternity leave between them rather than it being open only for the mother.
At present mothers are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave, of which 39 weeks is paid at varying rates.
Under the plans mothers must still take at least two weeks maternity leave – or four in some industries – but will be able to nominate their husband or partner to take over all or part of the remaining 50 weeks.
If they do, the father’s employer would take over paying them while they are off.
The two employers will have to work out the arrangements between themselves to ensure that couples are not taking more than their entitlement.
Workers will still have to agree the arrangements with their employers but there will be no opt-out, even for small businesses.
Employers groups have warned that the system would impose an unnecessary burden on small firms.
But Government figures show that as few as two per cent of eligible fathers are expected to take up the offer of extra leave initially, largely because men generally earn more.
Even at the highest estimate only eight per cent are expected to take up the offer or
figures published with the bill show that – just over 28,000 men a year.
The changes are estimated to cost business between £12.6 million and £42.3 million a year, but with initial start-up costs of £49 million on top.
But Ms Swinson insisted the change would be good for business.
"Employers will soon get used to more men taking time off after their child is born and more mothers returning to work earlier, shattering the perception that it is mainly a woman's role to stay at home and look after the child,” she said.
“It is just about giving people choice rather than starting from the premise that this is what one gender does and this is what the other gender does.
“There are some physical differences that we can’t get away from, it is always going to be the case that women take more time on average than men but once mothers are recovered from that there is absolutely no reason why it should be mum rather than dad, it is going to be up to individuals and families”
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society, said: “The reality is that for many couples, a disparity in pay between the father and mother will make it difficult for couples to share parental leave.
“Families will simply not be able to afford to live off the mother's salary if it is significantly lower than the father's.”
Plans to require divorcing couples to operate "shared parenting" have also provoked opposition from legal experts.
Last year, an official review advised against the move, arguing that a similar move in Australia had opened the way to a landslide of legal claims.
Ministers are determined to press ahead with the plan which will give both parents a legal right to spend enough time to develop a meaningful relationship with their children.
The only exceptions will be if it is thought that a child's well – being would be jeopardised by such a relationship.
Last month peers criticised plans by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to remove legal requirements for social workers to consider placing children with adoptive families from their own ethnic background.
Ministers are also planning a clampdown on parents having contact with children who have been taken away from them.
An official Government response to a consultation on the rules on access concluded that judges should be given new powers to ban parents or other relatives having contact with children who have been adopted, if there is a history of abuse.
Meanwhwile existing duties on social workers to “endeavour to promote” contact between children in care and their family will also be scrapped.
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