Who’s the daddy of childcare?

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COMMENTARY: Norway’s maternity and paternity leave benefits rank as the most generous in the world, sparking debate both at home (over new proposals to further expand them) and abroad. One newcomer to Norway from the UK takes up the debate, and examines the differences between his British homeland and his newly adopted home.

(Writer Aled-Dilwyn Fisher, originally from Wales, is a graduate of the London School of Economics and has been active in politics in Britain.)

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Aled-Dilwyn Fisher moved to Oslo last summer, armed with a degree from the London School of Economics and keen to experience life in Norway, which continually tops world rankings for prosperity and equality. PHOTO: Views and News

Norway vs Britain Round 1 –
Who’s the daddy of childcare?

In the debate about maternity and paternity laws once again flaring up across Europe in the new “age of austerity,” it seems everyone has an opinion – even search engines.

Indeed, it is rather telling that when you type “paternity leave” into Google, it asks you whether you really meant “maternity leave.” Rarely has a search engine result so reflected the wider values of many societies.

Ask most people in my native country, Britain, about parental leave and they are more likely to have an opinion than to know what their legal entitlement actually is; in fact, this is precisely what led me to Google in the first place. I wondered if the same opinionated ignorance is prevalent in Norway, where arguably the world’s most notoriously generous parental leave laws have attracted media attention once again in recent weeks, with Children, Equality and Social Inclusion Minister Audun Lysbakken (a young father himself, about to take off on four months of paternity leave) looking to increase the minimum paternity entitlement to 14 weeks paid leave. The debate was also briefly reignited in Britain in lieu of its discussion last week in the European Parliament.

Seemingly missing from much of this discussion in both Britain and Norway is a thorough appreciation of the benefits of either (or both) maternity or paternity leave. The debate so easily slides into a casual rehashing of long-held, little-scrutinised positions.

Obvious benefits
For most people, the benefits of maternity entitlements seem almost too obvious to merit debate – the basic need for a mother to be at home with a baby in its formative development stages is usually the limit of understanding of the argument for strong maternal leave allowances. Still, there are a number of studies that point to more concrete advantages of generous pre- and post-natal maternity allowances, including a reduction in the need for caesarean sections and increased uptake of breastfeeding, which are often overlooked or ignored in the debate.

In terms of paternity leave, there is a severe reluctance on the part of even liberal or left-leaning Brits in particular to afford it anywhere near the status reserved for a mother’s entitlement. The aforementioned debate in the European Parliament concluded with the adoption of a resolution aiming to extend maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks, with the proviso that this includes two weeks of paternity leave. In reaction to this relatively modest attempt to encourage take up of paternity leave, there were howls of consternation from the British press and governing coalition, who chose to focus instead on the equally modest increase in maternal entitlements. One Conservative Member of the European Parliament claimed that “all this new law will achieve is the likelihood of greater unemployment of women of child-bearing age.” Of course, the principal argument against this is precisely that raising paternity entitlement will encourage greater sharing of parental care duties, reducing the potential disadvantages of absence from the labour market for women. But British conservatives (with a ‘Big C’ and ‘small c’), as well as many so-called progressives, cannot overcome the cognitive dissonance this idea causes with their in-built assumptions about who is supposed to bring up children; thus the debate centres on how high maternity entitlement ought to be, rather than about the interaction between entitlements for the father as well as the mother.

Who gets what, and where
It is important to lay out clearly the state of play with regards maternity and paternity leave in Norway and Britain.

Norwegian parents are entitled to 56 weeks away from work at 80 percent pay or 46 weeks at full pay. The father must take at least 10 of these weeks (otherwise they cannot be transferred to the mother), with the rest shared between the parents; the mother must, as part of this, have at least three weeks off immediately before birth and six weeks off immediately after birth. Furthermore, both mothers and fathers are allowed a full year of unpaid leave for parental duties.

British mothers can expect just six weeks leave at full pay, followed by 33 weeks on a statutory minimum amount (although it is fair to say that many employers are slightly more generous than this). Fathers may have two weeks at the statutory minimum amount and may request a further four weeks annually if they have worked in their current job for at least one year. Of course, as we so often imagine in Britain, it’s much worse in the US, where there is no entitlement to paid leave and people have to jump quite a few hurdles to get a maximum 12 weeks off without pay.

I doubt any ordinary Briton – or, for that matter, any ordinary Norwegian – would be particularly surprised by the stark disparities between our respective countries. This is why I am always perplexed when British commentators react as if astonished by international studies that suggest that Britain is lagging behind many others on these issues, such as Save the Children’s “State of the World’s Mothers Report 2010,” which placed Norway as the best country to be a mother and Britain in 14th place. The US, so often the point of comparison for British social policy, came yet further down the table in 28th position. Parental leave allowances are just a part of these indexes, and one should always be sceptical about the validity of such rankings – but, nevertheless, generous parental leave, and greater equality between maternal and paternal entitlements, tends to point to better childcare-related social policy and, crucially, better outcomes for children.

Ultimately, I am left wondering whether British politicians should be more worried about coveting the US social system or, rather, copying a country that regularly comes up number-one in worldwide surveys of the best countries in which to bring up, and be, a child. What better league is there to top?

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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