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Editorial: Parental leave proposal offers better balance

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The subsidy for children under 2 to be in care is close to the sum a parent receives weekly on paid parental leave. Photo / Thinkstock
The subsidy for children under 2 to be in care is close to the sum a parent receives weekly on paid parental leave. Photo / Thinkstock

The previous Government was much taken with the economic benefit of getting and keeping more women in work. It saw improved incentives for parents to use childcare as being a key means of furthering this ambition.

There was a nod also towards what then Prime Minister Helen Clark described as "good outcomes" for children, notably through a planned increase in paid parental leave.

This was never enacted, however. By omission, even if not intention, children's wellbeing played second fiddle to boosting female participation in the workforce.

Not before time, a more reasonable balance is now being mooted.

The Children's Commissioner, Dr John Angus, suggests parents should be helped to stay at home for the first year of their children's lives, instead of subsidising care elsewhere.

This would mean restructuring the mix of parental leave entitlements and subsidised childcare, so they best meet the needs of very young children, he says.

The subsidy for children under 2 to be in care is close to the sum a parent receives weekly on paid parental leave, after tax.

"Rather than spend a large amount of taxpayers' money on subsidies for infants to be in childcare, that money might be better put into supporting care at home by the parent," Dr Angus says.

His view will not be applauded universally. The Welfare Working Group's recent recommendations were underpinned by the notion that women should be in work, for their own benefit as much as that of the economy.

Many women happily share that view, particularly if they are career-minded, and return to work as soon as possible after giving birth. Clearly, they are confident that the quality of childcare for very young children will be high.

Regrettably, this is not always the case, as the commissioner's report found.

Yet even an all-encompassing availability of high-quality childcare would not mean those who choose to stay at home with their infants make the wrong decision. Far from it. Much research suggests their priority is the right one.

"There's no doubt that very young babies and families benefit from having as much time together as possible," says Hayley Whitaker, an executive member of the NZ Educational Institute.

The Clark Government talked of increasing paid parental leave from 14 weeks to a year.

In an ideal world, that would certainly be done, thus reinforcing the message to young parents that society thinks it right for one of them to care for their infant at home for that period. But financial restraints make this impractical at the moment, even if this were to be phased in over eight years, as suggested by the Families Commission some time ago.

Therein lies the value of Dr Angus' suggestion. He is proposing an effective redirection of spending, rather than a sizeable new impost on the Government's coffers. Indeed, more spending to support care at home by the parent and less on subsidising infants to be in childcare could be close to fiscally neutral if income testing were part of the equation.

This is yet another example where there is no need for the state to make beneficiaries of those wealthy enough, and quite prepared, to support themselves while caring for the children at home.

Currently, the length of paid parental leave is low compared with most Western countries. That hardly sends out an appropriate message about the importance of caring for babies at home.

Indeed, to some degree it underlines the vital role that women now play in the workforce. As important as that has become, there is good reason for a subtle redrafting of priorities. Dr Angus' proposal provides a sensible way to address that.

- NZ Herald

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