shared parental leave – time for change?

May 6th, 2021

I remember blogging about the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) when it was introduced in 2015.  The objective of this leave was to address the imbalance in gender equality, providing flexibility for parents looking after a new-born while maintaining their place on the career ladder. Typically, we had witnessed a bleary-eyed father returning to work two weeks after the birth leaving the mother to hold the baby for another six to twelve months.  The concept of the scheme gave hope that it would lead to a more equitable childcare balance between parents and with that a cultural shift in attitude.

SPL enables parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after having a baby, either by taking time off separately or together for up to six months.  However, 6 years after its introduction, the take-up of shared paternity leave remains shockingly low with government estimates that the take-up among eligible couples is between just 2% and 8%. So why has it been so unsuccessful?

As well as being administratively complex, commentators recognise that pay is the major factor.  Men can take two week’s paternity leave with statutory pay at £151.97 per week*.  If they take time off for SPL, the weekly pay is at a similar rate.  This is approximately half of the national living wage rate. As men are typically the higher income earners in a family, this would represent a major cut in household income.  Businesses rarely offer more generous schemes for the father to take extended leave.

By contrast mothers are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave and are eligible to be paid for six weeks at 90% of average earnings and 33 weeks at £151.97 per week*.  Added to this many business provide enhanced maternity benefits nowadays and there is often contractual pay on top.  In terms of balancing the household books, it generally makes more sense for the father to return to work.

The other problem is that government didn’t lead by example back in 2015.  It was only this year that government approved a bill allowing ministers formal paid maternity leave for six months. Previously ministers had to resign from their post if they wished to take any time off after giving birth!  However, there is still no such entitlement for ministerial fathers indicating that government does not see any form of shared parental leave as the norm.

Campaigners, trade unions and economists have been calling for shared parental leave to be replaced with a fairer and more effective system with better paid leave for each parent.  Rosalind Bragg, the director of Maternity Action has referred to the SPL scheme as “a deeply flawed and chronically failing policy” and calls for urgent reform.

The TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, has pointed out that the UK has some of the worst paid maternity and paternity leave in Europe and she stresses that “both parents should have time to care and bond with their baby, without having to transfer leave between them”.  She also added “without meaningful reforms, many dads won’t be able to afford to take time off work when their kids are born and women will continue to shoulder an unequal share of care and be penalised”.

Evaluation of the shared parental leave scheme began in 2018 with a consultation but its report providing recommendations has been delayed. An Employment Bill is on the agenda for the next parliamentary session, and many hope a new model for parental leave and pay will feature.  To be effective, these rights need to be a day one right for working parents, whether employees, workers or self-employed.

When men are enabled and incentivised to take longer periods of time away from work after the birth of a baby it may become the norm for all employees to do so and thus, in turn, inequalities may reduce, and the gender pay gap might narrow.  Otherwise women will continue to change most of the nappies and experience the well-recognised career penalty – the Motherhood Penalty – that comes with having a family.

This blog is by Caroline Oliver, Senior Solicitor at Didlaw

* or 90% of earnings, whichever is lower.

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