Clegg’s Unlikely Revolution

Hands up if you think Nick Clegg will still have a serious political career in five years time.

All those tittering that he doesn’t exactly have a serious political career now, sit down and behave. We know Clegg is almost certainly bound for the political version of the Smash Hits pop dumper. But he may have left an important legacy, in the shape of the Government’s plans to reform parental leave.

From 2015, mothers will be able to choose to share their maternity leave with their partners, after an initial two-week recovery period. And the plans, unveiled by Jo Swinson, will allow parents a lot of flexibility. They can both take leave at the same time if they wish, and they can swap back and forth over the year, taking turns to be on leave. So a mum could go back to work for a specific project, then return to maternity leave for a while longer.

The plans had to be watered down: initially, there was to be an additional 6-week period of leave for dads, but that has been scrapped until some unspecified future date when the economy has recovered. Nonetheless, this is actually revolutionary. I can’t quite figure out how Clegg got it past his coalition chums.

This is, after all, the government which is cutting child benefit, insisting that parents pay a fee to use the Child Support Agency and overseeing colossal cuts to female-dominated public sector posts. It is not known for its enthusiasm for equality or the advancement of women. How on earth did Clegg talk them into it?

I’ve no idea, but talk them into it he did. I’m not sure that we’ll be seeing British versions of “latte pappas” anytime soon, but this has to be a step in the right direction. I do have some worries: firstly, two weeks reserved for the woman seems very short.

Secondly, there’s a danger that this policy will not work because of a failure to interrupt the vicious circle of the gender pay gap. Women earn less than men largely because they have to take career breaks to have children. But fathers are unlikely to take long periods of parental leave if they are the chief breadwinner. But women won’t be able to become the main breadwinner in larger numbers if we don’t equalise parental absences from the workplace. Is there an intervention that we can make here, to break this cycle?

Thirdly, this does nothing to address the eyewatering costs of childcare, which force many women to stay at home once they’ve had their second child, since they would actually be financially worse off if they returned to work.

But it’s a welcome proposal. It comes too late for me, since I’ll be starting my mat leave in February. And even though I’m very much looking forward to a whole year off work, I would have loved the opportunity for my partner and I to spend the first 4-6 weeks of our child’s life together, rather than the rushed 2 weeks we’ll have before he goes back to work.

Nick Clegg may just have done us all a massive favour. So I will resist the mean-spirited urge to wonder if he’s interested in improving the lot of stay-at-home dads because he knows he’s going to be one soon. That would just be childish.

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