In a week when we saw a set of disappointing elections – with hard working Liberal Democrats not getting the results they deserved and turnout slumping to a new low – it’s worth remembering what we’re achieving in Government.
This week I had the privilege – and I really do mean privilege – to announce a change in government policy that I’ve been working on pretty much since day one in the job. It’s a change that I think will make a difference to the lives of families up and down the country in a big way: shared parental leave.
We’re ending the system where the mother gets a year off and the dad just a paltry two weeks – a system which entrenches the gender divide at home and at work. Instead there will be 54 weeks off for every new set of parents, two weeks protected for the mum, and two for the dad, with the other 50 for them to divide up between them however they choose. They can even take a big chunk of time off together if that’s what suits them best.
At the same time, I announced we’re (finally) going to give parents of adopted children exactly the same rights to request flexible working arrangements of their employers.
These changes have been a long time coming. I remember agreeing the few words in the coalition agreement back in May 2010 about introducing “shared parental leave” and thinking – that’s an easy win. Far from it.
We’ve had submissions and papers and consultations every couple of months since then working out exactly how we create a shared system. We’ve spoken to business to ensure we design rules that won’t be disruptive at work. We’ve spoken to mums’ groups and dads’ groups and children’s groups to make sure the system will work for real family life. I’ve discussed it with my wife Miriam at length too – supporting working women is something she really cares about.
Of course in government, and especially in coalition, you don’t get everything you wish for. I also considered extending protected paternity leave to encourage dads to take more time off. But it isn’t deliverable right now, so that’s one I’ve put in the drawer for our 2015 manifesto.
But it’s so great to see something you’ve been working on for a long time finally see the light of day. It’s like sending your child to school for the first time – well, a bit like that, anyway.
That’s also how I feel about the announcements my colleague Norman Lamb made this week about improving care for people with mental health problems. I remember asking questions at PMQs about this back when we were in opposition, trying to get patients with mental health problems the same rights as people with physical health problems – like limits on how long they had to wait for treatment.
I got so many letters from people who had been waiting literally years to see someone and I was determined to try to do something about it. Now in government, though it’s largely under the radar, we’re putting into practice what we called for then.
Basically we’re making changes to the so-called “Mandate” by which the Health Secretary directs the NHS Commissioning Board, which in turn sets the framework for NHS managers and doctors. We went through all sorts of draft mandates and, after talking it over with David Nicholson, the NHS Chief Executive and Lord Layard, basically the biggest champion of talking therapies in the country, we came to an agreement. Like most things in the NHS it is all oddly technical but what this new “Mandate” means is that, for the first time, mental health patients in England will have a right to treatment within 18 weeks just like everyone else.
So there you go: More freedom for parents and more rights for people with mental health problems. One week, two changes with a big impact for millions of people. You don’t get that in opposition.