Monday, 30 March 2009

Fairness is an illusion, in some cases

The Today programme reported this morning that New Labour's latest equality bill contains a proposal to cut maternity leave. Apparently, the problem is that "the UK has the most unequal arrangements in Europe" what with women getting 9 months and men only getting a few weeks.

Now, I'll admit that I didn't listen to all of the report. The woman being interviewed was so incredibly irritating that the real choice lay between the off switch and a nasty traffic accident. I chose the off switch. Nor am I interested in the argument over whether maternity leave is 9 months, 8 months, 7 weeks, of 10 minutes. The fact is, a member of staff getting pregnant is a nightmare for a small business, and that debate is just about how much of a nightmare we make it for the business owner in order to give the new parent a fighting chance of getting off to a decent start.

No, my irritation is on two completely different counts.

First, the comment that "the UK has the most unequal arrangements in Europe". Think back to the last time you saw a couple arriving at a maternity ward in the later stages of labour. Chances are, your mental image is of two people who are in a somewhat unequal state. Speaking from experience, I can say that he's probably a bit worried and a bit nervous. As for her, Mrs P looked like a weeble. Only slightly more round. And in rather more pain. Equal, we were not.

Likewise, imaging a pair of new parents, feeding their child naturally and in line with Government guidelines. Again, they will not be equal. He doesn't have breasts - unless he's really fat, but even then they won't be functional.

So I'm sorry, but equality is not achievable in this field. Women will, inevitably, go through a harder and more arduous time during pregnancy, and need more time off. The argument that "the UK has the most unequal arrangements in Europe", therefore we need to change them, is utter rubbish.

Second, it would be nice if maternity arrangements could remain stable for a while. My firm is smallish - 35 staff or so. From time to time one of the women falls pregnant (always the women, I note - is my firm sexist, perhaps?) and we need to decide what arrangements to make for her maternity. We generally start from the statutory minimum and work from there to create a package that is fair to her and to other staff, which reflects our goodwill for her past work and our genuine desire for her to return after the new arrival, and which can reasonably set a precedent for future pregnancies.

We have never been able to use any of the precedents we have set. Not once.

Why? Because no two pregnancies that we have had to cater for have happened under the same maternity provisions. Every single time, the rules have changed under our feet since the last pregnancy. Each time, the rules have extended maternity rights in a way that made the previous arrangement unworkable.

This means that every time a member of staff falls pregnant, we have to sit down and spend the time working out what to offer her, from scratch. Time that we could spend working.

Constant change therefore reduces our productivity. This is one of the ways in which Government is the problem.


  1. The Conservative plan to give out 12 months leave but let the parents decide how to split it between them will be an excellent step towards balancing the scales, but unfortunately some policy makers haven't figured out that you can't find the laws of biology when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth.

  2. What? Let people decide for themselves how they want to run their lives?

    No, that couldn't possibly work. in New Labour's New Britain!

  3. That policy should put 45+ year old women top of the heap for employers.
    If they aren't already.