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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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‘Work, Caring and Life Balance’

Friday, March 11, 2005

Meg made the following contribution during a debate in Westminster Hall on the topic ‘Work, Caring and Life Balance’.


Ms Meg Munn: I am delighted to have an opportunity to participate in this important debate, which is in the same week as international women's day.

I welcome the Government's goal of providing 12 months' paid maternity leave by the end of the next Parliament, and in particular the proposals for a law to enable mothers to transfer part of their maternity leave and pay to fathers. That will help to give children the best start in life by providing parents with a choice about who wants or needs to be the main person looking after their new baby. It will also allow mothers to return to work earlier if that is required or what they wish to do. It also responds to the call by many fathers for them to be assisted to stay at home and care for their children in a way that is not generally possible.

This is a modern law that meets altered family patterns and gives greater equality to parents in the extremely important first months of their new child's life. More and more fathers want to play a greater role in those early years than their fathers were able to play. That can be enormously beneficial to the child. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Department of Trade and Industry consultation document. It stated that when

"fathers play a greater role in bringing up children, this can lead to strong, positive educational effects later on in the child's life".

Last summer, I visited Denmark on holiday and was delighted to meet up with an old work colleague. He had married a Danish woman some years ago. They settled in Copenhagen and had three children. As everyone knows, the level of support for families in Denmark is higher than in this country and has been for many years?as are its tax levels, which he was less encouraging about. However, he particularly prized the ability that he and his wife had to spread the available maternity leave between them. They could choose the arrangement that made sense to them in their circumstances. He was just about to go on four months' leave following the birth of their latest child.

The introduction in December 1999 of the entitlement to 13 weeks' parental leave per child?albeit unpaid?was an important move towards giving fathers the opportunity to spend time with their children while they are young. That was further strengthened in 2003, when the Government introduced two weeks' paid paternity leave. However, family patterns are changing and in no area of life could it be more important to give parents a real choice about how they manage all the family's needs: the need to physically care for a child; the need to earn a living; and, importantly, the need for both parents to form an emotional bond with their child and to take an active part in their child's life, particularly in those important early years.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) recently launched a campaign on supporting parents and carers. It is concerned that many new mums are being driven back to work too early because they cannot afford to take their full statutory maternity leave. It undertook a national survey and found that 78 % of new mothers would have liked more time off with their new babies, but they went back to work an average six weeks before their statutory maternity pay ran out.

Ms Buck : Does my hon. Friend agree that polling evidence conducted by other organisations confirms that parents rank the need for flexible working entitlements when their children are in their teenage years very highly? I am sure that that applies in relation to other groups, too. It is right that we lay the foundations in early years. However, does she agree that one of our most important next stages is to support families whose children are in that difficult transition period of entering secondary school?

Ms Munn : My hon. Friend rightly spots that I have concentrated so far on the early years, and I shall continue to do so. However, the years that she mentions are important and an equivalent of a Sure Start for teenagers has been suggested. It would recognise the difficult challenges that families face at that time and examine how we can support parents in dealing with them. I said that any of us might need to work flexibly because of various caring reasons, be they family, illness, or age and disability as our parents or partners get older. The flexibility argument is important throughout.

According to the USDAW survey, a number of mothers felt that they needed to go back to work for financial reasons. Two thirds of those who went back early did so because they could not afford to stay off. The union found that the average cost of taking 12 months off was £7,000?a sum that is beyond the means of many workers. That does not just apply to mothers: fathers face the same economic dilemma. Every father who was surveyed wanted more paid paternity leave. They simply could not afford to take extra unpaid to leave to spend time with the newborn child. The ability for parents to share parental leave between themselves will offer many fathers more opportunities to spend time with their children.
Of course, businesses, particularly small ones, need to consider the effects on them of any changes to those rights. Many sectors of our economy rely on female workers?USDAW points directly to the retail sector?but with businesses getting at least 92 %  of the cost of statutory maternity pay from the Government, and with small businesses receiving more, cost should not be a major concern.

Research by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that on average only 3 % of any work force will be on maternity leave during a year. Last year the Commission reported that 30,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy. Women who are properly supported before and during maternity leave feel motivated to go back to work and to stay with the same employer, so there are benefits to businesses in well managed maternity leave. Retaining highly trained employees of both sexes is important in business, especially in today's economic climate, in which getting well trained staff is not always easy.

Again, we can look to the Scandinavian countries. We know that the provision of child care matters, but a child-friendly society also needs parent-friendly workplaces. There is evidence to show that family-friendly companies are more productive and economically successful. For example, Finland has achieved the enviable goal of becoming one of the most productive economies in the European Union, with high levels of female participation in the work force and the EU's highest birth rate. We spend a lot of time discussing the problem of pensions and how we will support an ageing population. We have a declining birth rate, and there is evidence to suggest that that is not a matter of choice for many families, but a matter of practicalities. By making it easier for families to manage work and home life, more will be able to choose to have the number of children that they want.

The key to many successful businesses is flexibility. Businesses that recognise that their staff have lives outside work are more likely to retain them. However, the issue is not just about economic success either for individual companies or for the country as a whole. Children are the future of communities. Britain is known for having a long-hours culture and for being a society that is not friendly to children. The proposals are an important step in changing that culture and our society. Recognising the individuality of families, work patterns, ages of children and existing support from extended family members, it is obvious that choice has to be central to supporting families in work. They are a key building block of our society, and a thriving economy enables not only families to have a good standard of living, but our society to afford the excellent public services on which we rely.

I welcome the publication of the DTI's consultation paper, aptly called Choice and Flexibility, and I look forward to the aims becoming a reality for all families in Britain.


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