For fathers

Speech by Maria Miller MP, Minister for Disabled People.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Maria Miller MP

Good morning, I’m delighted to be here this morning to help launch this research, which is the culmination of two years extremely hard work by Lancaster University and Working Families.

The publication of this research couldn’t have come at a better time with last week’s launch of the Government consultation on Modern Workplaces, which was also the culmination of lots of hard work

It’s good to see a piece of research focused upon the challenges facing working fathers and recognising the unique role they have in family life.

This is no where more apparent than in my own household which is dominated by Dads, my own, my husband, without them I couldn’t do what I am doing today and have three children.

Dads are special. Many working women couldn’t do what they do without their support.

So are mums.

Each has a unique role in family life which should be equally valued.

We, as a society, have to adapt to support and nurture those roles.

Today is about fathers.

But, as David Cameron reminded us earlier this week, we are committed to supporting both parents because we want to make sure every child grows up in a stable, loving home.

We will shortly be publishing our strategy for the vital early years of a child’s life, including radical new ideas for supporting both parents.

In the meantime there is much we are doing to develop support for families and fathers.

I will move on to that in a moment, but let me just say a couple of words about mums and families more generally.

Today’s event takes nothing away from the pivotal role mother’s have.

This discussion, whilst focusing on the pressures working fathers face, in no-way undermines or ignores the very great challenges that mums still face, not least in the ongoing battle for equal pay.

And although we’ll talk a lot about fathers today, and a little about parents, we have not forgotten the pivotal role grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members play in providing the love and stability that children need when developing a sense of themselves.

Government recognises that to truly support families, we must address the issues faced by mothers, fathers and often wider family members because it’s only then that we can start to make a difference to children’s lives.

This is why I was so keen to come and speak to you today, because there are two sides to making this a family-friendly nation.

For too long I think it’s been a one-sided debate.

The pressures on fathers are different to those faced by mothers.

There is evidence, as your research has found, that Government policies have previously focused almost solely on supporting mothers and in doing so have undermined father’s roles.

Just for example, the couple penalty that has been allowed to develop in the tax and benefit system creating financial incentives which can push fathers out of family life. 

And we know fathers want to be involved.

We now have a situation where, as this research found, the vast majority (82%) of full-time working dads would like more time with their families.

Research has found that a third of working fathers can’t even have breakfast with their children - they would like to but they miss out.   

It is just this kind of family ritual, meal times, play times, time spent as a family that helps to create important bonds and shape children.

Family meals are important, as we all know.

The OECD measures the number of main meals 15 year olds eat with their families as one of the barometers of children’s well-being. In the UK around a third said they do not regularly eat with their parents putting us fourth from the bottom of the international league table of OECD countries.

One way for fathers to enjoy more meal times with their children, if we use family meals as a touch point, then may be to adjust their working hours.

But two in five are afraid to ask for flexible working because they believe it will harm their career prospects.

Those men who do request flexible working are almost twice as likely to have their request turned down as their female counterparts. (23% of men’s requests are declined compared to 13% of women’s)

This is quite simply nonsensical because all the evidence demonstrates that flexible working is not just good for families.

It’s good for business. I know having worked in business, latterly as a company director, before becoming an MP, so I know that first hand.

The Fatherhood Institute found that a quarter of fathers changed jobs within the first two years of a child’s birth so they could spend more time at home.

Whereas evidence demonstrates that firms offering flexible working report higher staff retention rates, increased productivity, greater staff engagement and commitment and loyalty from employees. All of us who have operated flexible work places know that to be true.

In essence, flexible working is good for the bottom line.

The British Chamber of Commerce found almost three quarters (70%) of firms offering flexible working felt it had improved employee relations and a similar amount (63%) told the CBI that offering flexible working had lowered staff turnover.

Crucially, research conducted by the London School of Economics has found that organisations with family friendly policies have higher levels of productivity (35%) and greater profits (60%) than firms offering no flexibility at all. 

But we are not just talking about equality for parents; we are considering providing the right to request flexible working to everyone.

We all have responsibilities at home and demands on our time outside the workplace. The number of people who have caring responsibilities of one form or another is greater than ever.

It is also worth reminding everyone that this is only a right to request flexible working, not a right to flexible working per se.

Government will not dictate to families or business how they should organise their lives or their workforce but what we do want is to encourage a sensible conversation between employer and employee about their needs both at work and at home.

The important thing is that people and employers should be able to work together to come to an arrangement that works for them.

At the same time we are developing non-legislative measures to encourage the cultural change needed to make this happen. The private sector working group brings together employers and experts to develop practical ways to stimulate awareness of the benefits of flexible working.

We are also exploring developing the civil service as an exemplar of flexible working. There is a role for Jobcentre Plus to promote flexible working to employers and people seeking work.

The hope is that we will slowly begin to see more of the benefits I have mentioned for both families and business, reducing stress for employees and increasing profits and productivity for employers.

We are also looking at the arrangements around maternity and paternity leave.

The current system focuses almost entirely on the mother, with fathers entitlement to paternity leave set at two weeks compared to the 39 weeks paid leave mothers can claim. There is virtually no flexibility in the current system with only one opportunity for parents to transfer this entitlement if the mother returns to work when the baby is 20 weeks old.

The current parental leave system is a smoke screen of flexibility, it promises more support for families trying to juggle work and home life but the reality is it actually entrenches state endorsed stereotypes by bestowing entitlements to mothers and whilst having very little regard for the roles of fathers.

Currently virtually all (94%) fathers take some time off work when their child is born. However, around a third supplement the statutory two weeks with their holiday entitlement so they can spend more time with their family, at what we all know to be a pivotal time in family life.

In our modern society, we too often assume that a father’s main contribution is financial and we can forget about the vital contribution they make to nurturing children.

There is clear research showing how important it is for fathers to be involved in the early part of a child’s life and their role is now, scientifically at least, considered as important as the mother’s.

For example, in America, studies have concluded that fathers approach to play tends to be more rough and tumble; they challenge children’s expectations, they develop curiosity and stamina as well as helping children develop problem solving skills and assertiveness.

We live in a world of changing family dynamics, one in which more parents want to share caring responsibilities, and we do increasingly value the role fathers in child development.

Yet we still let the state dictate who should look after the child by allowing a system of parental leave to continue which values mothers more than fathers.

I am not suggesting for one moment that we should level down, taking entitlements away from mothers to bring them in line with those we currently provide for fathers.

Nor can we completely level up, bringing fathers’ paternity entitlement in line with the full complement we currently offer mothers. As I have mentioned, there are tangible benefits for businesses that provide flexible working. Any changes Government makes to the statutory system must maximise those benefits, and not be a burden on business.

So, the consultation proposes providing a protected period of maternity leave which will remain just for mothers, providing a ‘use it or lose it’ entitlement to paternity leave which will be just for fathers and then providing for up to five months shared flexible parental leave which can be used by mums or dads, whatever best fits their particular circumstances.

It is a deeply personal decision, dependent on family income, the nature of parental relationships and employment circumstances. It should not depend upon the limitations of Government restrictions.

Finally, we need to do more to support families if parents separate. The current system of child maintenance fails around half of children whose parents have split up.

Government has become too involved in families when they separate. It has developed a system of rules and regulations which makes it more difficult for parents to come to equitable arrangements for sharing care and to take responsibility themselves. We need to reform the system and encourage families to find the arrangements which work best for them.

We need to reform the system to encourage families to come to arrangements which work for them. We believe that enabling collaboration between parents will encourage family-based arrangements and is also likely to bring better long-term benefits for children.

The Coalition came to power faced with the enormous challenge of tackling the deficit and restoring stability in the UK. This has, without doubt, been the focus of the first few months in Government but we have not abandoned our priorities.

Earlier this week the Prime Minister said: “Don’t think I have forgotten about our pledge to make this country the most family friendly in Europe” and I don’t think I would let him.

The proposals in the Modern Workplaces Green Paper will help us move closer to that goal.

Whilst I know today is very much about fathers, it is also fundamentally about supporting families.

Whilst I know we must go further to redress the balance in terms of flexibility and support for fathers the ultimate purpose of making these changes is to develop a nation that is truly family friendly.

Working Families has always been a campaigning force for family friendly policies and I’d simply like to conclude by welcoming today’s research and your on-going work in this area.

Published 25 May 2011