Instead of the current, weak entitlement to unpaid leave, fathers and partners should be allowed to take paid leave for four antenatal appointments
Ben Cooper (@BenCooper1995) is a senior researcher at the Fabian Society
Around the world, governments are protecting family time from employers’ encroachment. In 2017, France introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ – preventing employers from communicating with staff outside of normal working hours. The law explicitly called for employers to respect workers’ ‘personal and family life’, including rest periods and leave. This has been followed by legislation in Belgium, Italy, Ireland, and Portugal – with Labour re-affirming its commitment to a similar ‘right to switch off’ in the UK.
However, this should just be the start when it comes to reforms to protect family time together – particularly for those families with babies and toddlers. The cross-party Early Years Commission, supported by the Fabians, argued that new parents must be able to spend more time with their child and with each other – free from financial and work pressures. Time together has clear benefits for parents and can positively shape a young child’s physical health and mental wellbeing.
But in too many cases, parents are not entitled to paid leave at important points during the antenatal and early years’ period. It would be easy to change this, delivering a real difference to the lives of millions, by enabling families to spend more time together. And it wouldn’t cost the government much either – a crucial consideration, when Labour’s every spending commitment is being closely scrutinised.
For example, fathers and partners of the mother only have the right to take time off for two antenatal appointments – and this is unpaid. As a result, they are likely to miss vital appointments, either because they have no right to take more time off work, or because they cannot afford to do so. Work ends up preventing many partners from being there at important moments, supporting the mother, and being involved in child-raising right from the start.
Instead of the current, weak entitlement to unpaid leave, fathers and partners should be allowed to take paid leave for four antenatal appointments. This would enable them to attend the initial appointment and the scan at 12 or 20 weeks – plus two further appointments. Being involved in care of the child throughout the pregnancy.
Once born, neither parent is entitled to any time off to attend their child’s medical appointments. And while there is a new right to carers leave for parents with disabled children, this entitlement is unpaid and for just five days per year. The government has also failed to clarify if it can be used in emergency situations – for example, if new, unexpected care arrangements needed to be put in place.
At these crucial, stressful times for a parent – when spending time together is so important – they face a difficult choice: take unpaid leave and be financially worse off; take on extra hours to recover from the financial hit, so spend less time with family; or even to leave work completely.
All parents should be entitled to paid leave for their child’s medical appointments, whether that child is a baby or a toddler. Parents of disabled children should be entitled to an additional period of paid leave for up to 10 days upon a new diagnosis or change in their child’s condition. These new entitlements will help parents absorb the news and put in place the necessary care arrangements – without worrying from the very start about how they will pay the bills.
Paid leave for antenatal appointments, for a child’s medical appointments and for arranging care should be guaranteed from day one in any job, rather than only after working somewhere for a set period of time. There is no reason for this to be dependent upon how long you’ve worked, or on how much you earn. The government should also take steps to ensure that self-employed parents can access the support necessary to spend time as a family at these crucial moments.
This approach is pragmatic and it will make a real difference, but it could be politically beneficial for progressives too. Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives have criticised ‘right to disconnect’, but they risk being seen as anti-family, and out of touch with the values of millions of people, by opposing reforms that enable families to spend more time together. For example, YouGov polling for the Fabian Society found 85 per cent of respondents considered ‘family’ to be important to them, compared to 52 per cent for ‘work’.
Inevitably, progressive employment rights will be misrepresented by the Conservatives and certain wings of the press – even if their proponents frame them as ‘family friendly’. But emphasising the central importance of protecting family time to pro-worker policies is critical to reaching out to voters. Progressives in government should feel confident defending family life, and must fight to secure workers more time with their families.