The Children and Families Bill 2013 has just had its second reading in the House of Lords. One of the aims is to encourage fathers involvement in childcare and accordingly, fifty weeks of the twelve months maternity leave is to become available as parental leave to eligible parents (see the Bill 032 2013-14 as bought from the Commons, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2013-2014/0032/14032.pdf, s89(1)). Increasing flexibility for parents may seem positive, but it is unlikely to result in a huge increase in fathers’ involvement in childcare. Indeed, it has been predicted that only 2% of eligible fathers will use any of the parental leave (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmpublic/childrenandfamilies/130307/pm/130307s01.htm, column 137).
With such small predicted uptake, it is questionable if the Bill could approach the reconciliation of work and care differently to better encourage fathers’ participation in childcare. The legislation currently considers care as something that needs to be accommodated in the workplace only occasionally, mainly during pregnancy and childbirth, and then fleetingly throughout the rest of childhood. However, these are obviously not the only times when people will need to combine paid work and their caring responsibilities. As has often been noted in the care literature, caring is an everyday and universal occurrence (see for example, M. Fineman The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency (The New Press, 2004)). Acknowledging this may allow and encourage fathers and others to become more involved in providing care. Therefore, an overarching change to the regulation of employment which would better accommodate caring responsibilities may have been more beneficial for fathers and all carers.
Recognising the universal nature of care may ensure that its importance is acknowledged. Generally, paid work is seen as the priority and any caring responsibilities are considered obstacles to this. Indeed, although much work has been done in regards to the reconciliation of paid work and caring responsibilities, most of it comes from an employment centric vantage. If the workplace is to better accommodate carers, the importance of care must be recognised. Caring can no longer be seen as an obstacle to employment, but as an everyday occurrence that will inevitably affect the workforce. Nicole Busby’s A Right to Care? Unpaid Care Work in European Employment Law (Oxford University Press, 2011) has been a vital contribution in this regard. She advocates a right to provide care alongside paid employment. Accordingly, rather than begrudgingly accommodating care when it cannot be avoided, it would be recognised as vitally important work which will regularly impact upon all people’s lives.
Better accommodating care and acknowledging its impact upon paid work may encourage more men, including fathers to increase their involvement in care. If caring is rightly acknowledged as an unavoidable part of normal life, the penalties associated with taking time out of employment will have to be removed. Accordingly, all people would feel more able to take leave from paid work. After all, leave will only be helpful if people feel that they can actually use it (S. Eaton ‘If You Can Use Them: Flexibility Policies, Organizational Commitment, and Perceived Performance’ (2003) 42 Industrial Relations 145). Therefore, a re-evaluation of paid work and the workforce is vital. If labour law is to better accommodate carers and challenge gender stereotypes regarding care, rather than introducing more sound-bite legislation, the acknowledgement of the importance and universality of care must fundamentally change the nature of paid work.