Last week the Telegraph reported that Conservative Ministers plan to exempt small businesses from strict maternity laws, giving companies with ten or fewer employees the right to negotiate maternity and paternity directly with their employees. I’m sure that on paper this seems like a win-win to the Ministers. Small businesses benefit, expectant parents get more choice. But it’s really not as simple as that.
Firstly, women are likely to lose out. While there are many admirable small business employers who would negotiate fair maternity and paternity leave deals with their employees, there is a real risk that relaxing the legislation will have a negative effect on many employees. Even with the current legislation, many women are still sacked for being pregnant. Just like tax, often it’s the biggest and most powerful companies who get away with blue murder.
Secondly, not everyone is in a position to strike a deal. Personally I like the idea of being able to negotiate my own maternity leave rather than being bound into rigid rules about what I should or shouldn’t take. But then I’m a confident woman, with a partner and other family members able to pick up any slack, a bank account which would keep me from starving for at least a couple of months, and the education to go get a different job. I would probably be able to negotiate a reasonable deal which benefited both me and my employer. Not everyone is so lucky – perhaps they have less family support, a smaller saving account, or they really do need that job.
The difficulty is that small businesses do need support. They are often bound up in red tape, with none of the loopholes exploited by large multi-national firms. And yes, I support the idea that the state should get off their backs and let them get on the important business of producing growth.
But on the other hand, the population needs to be replenished. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure its own survival through the birth of future citizens. Families need to be able to have children, and to be able to choose which of the parents should take time off work. And so the state should offer them some respite from paid employment in order for them to help with the continued existence of the UK.
I have an idea for maternity and paternity leave which I’d like to throw out here. Perhaps it won’t work, perhaps it will. It’s this: abolish paternity and maternity leave altogether, and replace it with baby leave. Let’s talk not about the rights of the parents to care for the child, but the right of the baby to be cared for by someone. The baby’s guardians can then divide the leave between them with no fuss. Why would this be better? Firstly, it takes the emphasis away from the perceived roles of the parents, hopefully leading to a situation where it wouldn’t be assumed that the mother is the one who takes time off. Secondly, it separates the care of the baby from the physical childbirth. Sometimes childbirth is relatively straight-forward and simple, sometimes it is a much more difficult experience. A mother, I suggest, should have separate medical leave for the birth and for her recovery. Thirdly, it opens the way for not just the biological mother and father, but possibly other members of the same family household (a grandparent, or the sibling of one of the parents) to take the baby leave instead. If one parent is absent or dead, an easy way for another family member to take baby leave could be incredibly useful.
Maternity and paternity leave should be about choice. Every family is different, and not all families want the same thing. But making the rules different for small businesses won’t benefit families, and because of that, are unlikely to benefit the UK as a whole.