HC Deb 09 November 1988 vol 140 cc333-5

5.1 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a statutory right to a period of parental leave for working parents of young children; to make provision for the establishment of a parental leave fund for the reimbursement of payment made during parental leave; and for connected purposes. I shall certainly be shouting aye loudly when I have presented the Bill.

I am pleased to reintroduce my Parental Leave Bill which was first introduced on 11 February last year, when it had considerable support in the nation. It is a radical and progressive measure for parents and children. It provides that mothers and fathers be allowed to take three months' paid leave during the first two years of their child's life. It can be in the first five years if the child is disabled or adopted. Parental leave will also apply to single parents and, on a pro rata basis, to part-time workers. It gives the parents the right to return to the same or similar work after an absence for child care.

The benefits of parental leave are enormous. It promotes equal opportunities, especially for women, and it gives a mother more options, knowing that the time off will be available to herself and her husband. It makes it easier for her to choose whether to return to work after the birth of her baby. With the provision of parental leave, her employment conditions take into account her real life circumstances—those of a mother. At present, many women are simply denied the choice of whether to return to work. Many of those who do return are in low-paid, low-calibre jobs, increasingly part-time, and their skills are neither properly used nor rewarded.

Parental leave also helps women to overcome the discontinuity in employment caused by child rearing. Britain has a low employment rate for women compared with the United States and other industrialised nations. A mother of two is out of the labour force for over seven years on average and loses earnings of more than £140,000 during her working life. That is unfair, but it could be overcome with measures such as my Parental Leave Bill.

Parental leave also distributes responsibility for child care more fairly between the parents, recognising it as a joint responsibility, not the woman's alone. Parental leave actively promotes that important change in attitude.

Parental leave also improves family and child welfare. It allows and encourages mother and father to work together as a team, sharing the burdens and the pleasures of caring for their baby. It recognises the importance of bonding, especially between father and child. Mr. T. Berry Brazelton, the chief medical officer of Harvard medical school in Boston, writing in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, said: We have seen that relatively minor, relatively inexpensive adjustments on the part of the medical system—such as … father participation … —can increase the opportunities for 'bonding' to the baby. Although this is likely to be only a first step toward fostering attachment and significantly enhancing the possibilities for the baby's optimal development, it is a most important step. I could give many other examples from the experts.

Parental leave will also counter the growing incidence of child abuse in Britain and be a serious measure in the reduction of family stress, which can be so damaging.

Parental leave gives dads a fairer deal. Fathers are almost forgotten contributors to child development, but most want to contribute positively. Many, when given the opportunity, find that they enjoy spending time with their children.

The benefits are enormous and they are widely recognised abroad. For example, 10 of the 12 EC countries already have parental leave arrangements. That is recognised by the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) in his letter to me dated 10 June. Britain is dragging its feet in denying working parents parental leave. The Government say that the EC countries have widely differing provisions, but at least they have them. Britain should have them as well. The Government should not continue to veto the EC draft directive.

The cost of parental leave has been referred to as a problem. The EC scheme would at most cost only £45 million. Mine would cost more, mainly because it is better, but it would cost less than 0.1 per cent. of overall working costs. My Bill recognises the impact that parental leave would have on small businesses by setting up a parental leave fund so that such people would not lose out.

It is easier for the employer and employee to plan, and would cost less, if leave were authorised rather than being unauthorised, as happens now. The skills returned to those firms by women's return to work is also of considerable value and should be taken into account. The benefits of parental leave clearly outweigh its cost. That is why the rest of Europe has adopted some form of parental leave.

My Bill has received widespread support. Significantly, active support has come from the British Medical Association, which says that it will give British parents the same opportunities as the majority of their counterparts in Europe, laying the foundations for a secure family life. The BMA goes into greater detail, which I shall not deal with because of the shortage of time, but it also presses parental leave upon the National Health Service, where it says it is very much needed, and the matter is being taken up at Whitley council level. In recognition of that, and in their role as employer, the Government should move towards parental leave.

My Bill is also supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission. It believes that there is an urgent need for such an arrangement to assist the reconciliation of work and family responsibilities and to encourage a more equitable sharing of the latter. It is also supported by the National Childbirth Trust. [Interruption.] Hon. Members groan every time I mention such organisations.

The Maternity Alliance supports my proposals and states that there needs to be a statutory right to parental leave as that would be the single most important step to reducing the disadvantages suffered by working parents, although it would like to see other improvements in child care provision as well. The Maternity Alliance itself has the support of more than 50 national organisations, some of which are very well known.

My Bill has the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson), so it is agreed Labour party policy that a system of parental leave should be introduced. It has the support of many trade unions. NUPE has sent me a letter giving the Bill its strong support and urging the Government to think again about the draft directive and their veto of it. Many local authorities have also written to me to that effect.

The denial of parental leave is part of the Government's reduction in overall child care support which includes the freezing of child benefit last week. There have been any number of reductions. Last week, The Observer commented: Mothers bringing up Britain's next generation are made to feel like scroungers. That is because of the effect that cuts have on child care. My Bill seeks to rectify that. My purpose in introducing it now is to influence the Queen's Speech and to make the Government think again; to start acting in favour of children and the family rather than utter platitudes while at the same time marching in the opposite direction and cutting child benefit.

The European Commission report, "Child Care and Equality of Opportunity" stated that the principal aim is a Europe where the work and responsibility involved in child care is properly valued and more equally distributed; where parents can reconcile family responsibilities and employment … in a way that is satisfying and does not involve disadvantage and inequality; and where children can get the advantage of a range of positive and enhancing experiences at home, in child care services and society at large. These aims concern both equality and quality of life. My Bill is part of that aim.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Ms. Jo Richardson, Mrs. Margaret Beckett, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Ms. Clare Short, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Dave Nellist, Mr. Tony Benn and Mr. Bob Clay.

  1. PARENTAL LEAVE 71 words