I am presently mulling over the idea of taking the next three years off from this journalism lark and spending the time instead on ‘paternity leave’. This is a new proposal by some Tory think tank so I am assuming that a) Cameron will win the next election and b) adopt the idea and c) have the grace to backdate it to the birth of my daughter, Emmeline, two years ago. Better still, he could backdate it to cover the birth of my two sons as well, thus giving me a total of nine years’ paid leave, which should comfortably see me through until the old liver packs up.
The Tories have yet to fill in the fine detail, however, and some questions remain: do the three-year stretches run consecutively, as I have assumed above, or — as in the case in most prison sentences these days — concurrently? And do we actually have to look after the bloody children and prove that we have done so? What if we just ignored them apart from the occasional hefty clout across the skull? Also, what happens in the case of divorcees like me? Can we still claim the time off? And, thinking about it, doesn’t the policy lack inclusiveness, penalising those who through no fault of their own cannot have children? Perhaps it would be fairer and simpler if we all got three years’ paid leave every time we had sexual intercourse, or even attempted, unsuccessfully, to have sexual intercourse. Or asked nicely if we might have sexual intercourse.
This paternity leave idea, which has the distinctly agreeable whiff of Zac Goldsmith about it, is an example of what is usually called ‘blue skies thinking’. There will be those, especially within the business community I suspect, who will think that it is the sort of blue skies occasioned by frozen methane crystals on the planet Gilgamesh somewhere in the Crab Nebula, so outlandish does it sound. But he is right, Zac (if it is Zac). Amid all this talk of what David Cameron must
do in order to capture the imagination of a cynical and disillusioned electorate, there is one broad principle which is begging to be taken up by an aspirant government: identify an issue upon which the overwhelming majority of British people believe a gross injustice is being perpetrated and put it right. This is not a risk-free approach: the injustices exist not because the present government wishes them to but because — for sometimes complex reasons, at other times for reasons of political correctness — it feels unable or unwilling to address them. One obvious example is the grotesque mismatch between the official concern afforded to the human rights of criminally minded immigrants and asylum seekers, illegal or otherwise, and the total lack of it to the people upon whom they inflict their mischief. Another — as Zac and the boys seem to have identified — is the equally grotesque legal bias shown toward women in all matters pertaining to the bringing up of children: in the family courts, in the divorce settlements, through employment legislation. If you want an example of institutionalised sexism, then here it is.
Take one simple example — the issue of maternity and paternity leave. What the Left would call ‘progressive’ legislation and a general softening of misogynist attitudes has seen the proportion of women working in Britain rise from somewhere around 30 per cent in the early 1970s to nearly 70 per cent today. This, we might all agree, is a good thing. However, the Equal Opportunities Commission and other campaigning bodies insist that women’s progress in the workplace is still slower than that of men and that hundreds of thousands of women should be occupying jobs which currently men hold, were there a truly level playing field. The EOC and others blame institutionalised sexism — and they are right, but they’ve got it the wrong way around. It is not, largely, misogynist attitudes in the workplace which are to blame, but the accidental effects of the very legislation which the EOC and others demanded must be introduced. If you are a married couple, both working, and you decide to have a baby, then the question of who stays at home to look after the baby is very easy to answer. Dad will be granted by his firm, if he’s lucky, two weeks of paid leave. Mum will get nine months, minimum — and these days will most likely return to work after this period in a part-time role, her managers instructed to treat her demands as to where and when she works (no nights, please) with complete understanding and indulgence. As a result, hundreds of thousands of married women miss out on a year of possible promotion; for the dads, meanwhile, there was no choice at all. Work — and forget the kids.
It is assumed then, as a matter of course, that women are the ‘primary carers’ of their children; which is fine, unless your aspiration is to provide a job market which is truly equal for both sexes. The same assumption is made in our family courts and it is reflected by the increasingly extraordinary divorce settlements which take for granted the notion that the wife sacrificed her career in order to bring up the kids and is thus entitled to a vast wodge of the husband’s earned income. But you cannot have it both ways. Right now we have employment legislation and family courts which severely penalise men and as a direct consequence persuade women that this full-time working business is all a bit much and, frankly, we’d rather sit at home with the kids and get paid for doing so.
There are few more thoroughly derided pressure groups in Britain than Fathers 4 Justice; their stunts are sneered at, their leading lights subjected to ridicule. This, despite the fact that they have caused little or no disruption to ordinary people and I have yet to read a considered rebuttal of their demands. Compare the sort of press coverage they receive to the cheerful indulgence afforded to those arrogant pubescent trolls camped outside Heathrow airport, who have stated their intention to mess up the lives of people trying to go on holiday because the ordinary public is too stupid to realise that a short hop to Magaluf with the kids at Easter will lead to the destruction of the Earth and every creature which walks upon it. Just as an example. And yet in the wider world, beyond the reach of the metropolitan media, I suspect there is quite a bit of sympathy for the notion that dads should have greater rights of access to their own children, from whom they have been estranged by a sexist judiciary. Three years’ paternity leave? A ludicrous step in the right direction ...