Research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that 45% of working fathers are not taking the paternity leave they are entitled to. Fathers are currently entitled to two weeks at £123.06 a week, and then 13 further unpaid weeks, but many only take a few days, or don't bother with a break at all. So are dads getting a raw deal, or do they simply not want to take time off?
A bit of both seems to be the conclusion, and men also apparently feel they can't restructure their work around their families, say the report's authors. Despite having the right to ask for flexible arrangements, 44% of fathers say they're afraid to broach the subject with their boss because they think it will harm their career prospects, while 36% worry that doing so would produce questions about their commitment.
None of which bodes very well for the Government's plans to introduce fully-fledged 'parenting leave' by 2011. This involves some of the paid leave currently available only to mums being made available to share with dads. So stay-at-home fathers could take up to six months off, with their partners' agreement of course.
But if fathers already feel unable to stay away from work, then it's hard to see how increasing the amount of time off they can turn down will help. Many still see themselves in a traditional breadwinning role, with 47% of fathers agreeing that ‘fathers are responsible for providing for their families'.
The EHRC has previously suggested its own policy reforms, including upping the first two weeks' pay to 90% of salary. Parents' contributions could be balanced by introducing an extended ‘parental leave' which could be taken by either parent for four months, two of those at 90% pay.
Of course, increasing paternity pay could help encourage dads who genuinely can't afford to take much time off, to spend more time at home with their newborn kids. This is clearly a big factor under the current arrangements, which only the relatively well off can afford to take advantage of anyway. But the extra money for such schemes has to come form somewhere, and the public purse is notably empty at present.
As the analogous debate over maternity leave over the past decade or so demonstrates, changing attitudes and cultures can be a slow and laborious affair. Legislation alone cannot solve the problem, but it might at least help to get the subject out in the open.
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Fathers fear prioritising family over work