Shared parental leave: has anything changed?

More than three years after shared parental leave was introduced, few fathers have taken advantage of the law change. Joseph Nicholls asks why, and examines what needs to be done to increase uptake

In April 2015, the government brought in new, widely anticipated legislation to provide for shared parental leave (SPL). The aim of then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, was to help create a ‘fairer society’ and pave the way for more hands-on fathers, and stop women feeling they have to choose between a career or a baby. Yet fast forward three and a half years and just 3 per cent of new, eligible fathers have taken SPL.

An employee and their partner can share up to 50 weeks’ leave (48 for factory workers) and up to 37 weeks’ pay if they have a child and share responsibility. This can mean 25 weeks off together, or another combination of sharing the leave entitlement together or separately. 

SPL can be one period of leave or taken in blocks of leave (a maximum of three) in the first year after the baby is born. The parents must share parental responsibility for the child at birth, be employed for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the due date, stay with the same employer during the period of SPL and earn at least £116 a week on average each. Adopting parents and a partner of a pregnant woman may also be eligible if they meet the same criteria.

Why has it not taken off?

  • Understanding: the concept is not widely understood by employers or employees. Some haven’t heard of the right and others assume maternity leave is the only option when considering childcare.

  • Eligibility: not everyone is eligible; where one partner is not in work or hasn’t been working for the qualifying period, the couple aren’t entitled to SPL.

  • Affordability: SPL pay is currently £145.18 per week or 90 per cent of average weekly earnings, whichever is lower. Where employers haven’t extended enhanced maternity schemes to SPL, it often doesn’t make financial sense for the father, who typically earns more, to take SPL.  

  • Stigma: men taking time off might be frowned upon, particularly in some sectors and it may be seen as career limiting, resulting in being overlooked for promotion. 

  • Community/culture: expectations aren’t necessarily the same for women and men and breastfeeding is a natural barrier. Some may believe natural, maternal instincts mean the best interests of the child are served by being cared for by the mother, or see it as their right to time with a child that they have carried during pregnancy.

  • Employment status: the increase in self-employed numbers might cause barriers in demonstrating income or make it less easy to take time off. 

Whatever the reason, and there will be others, it is overwhelmingly women, not men who still sacrifice their career progression for their childcare responsibilities.

There are alternatives, though, working well around the world. Scandinavia, for example, enables a far more balanced distribution of parenting. There are mandatory periods of paid time off that fathers must take to spend with their children, allowing women to resume their careers.

Is the outlook positive for the UK?

At least in theory, SPL reflects modern family circumstances. However, the provisions don’t go far enough to redress the imbalance. A recent legal challenge in the Employment Appeal Tribunal claiming it was discriminatory for a male taking SPL to not receive enhanced pay, despite it being paid to a female colleague taking maternity leave, was unsuccessful (Ali v Capita Customer Management Ltd). This may change in future but it is likely to require parliamentary intervention. 

Many fathers are rightly determined to be there for the most fulfilling connection life can offer, but there remain real concerns about becoming de-skilled and disconnected (feelings shared by many women taking maternity leave). However, only through legislation aimed at providing more financial support can we ever realise the culture shift SPL was designed to help bring about.

The benefits of getting the balance right for society are significant. If gender pay equality is going to be achieved, if fathers are going to be given a real opportunity to spend quality time with their children, if mental health and divorce rates are to be tackled, providing an equal balance for men and women in their roles as both income generators and parents is a necessary, sustainable solution. 

Joe Nicholls is an employment law partner at London solicitors Hodge Jones & Allen