Is shared parental leave in need of reform?

SPL has had a disappointing uptake in the UK since it was introduced five years ago. Moira Campbell looks at whether it’s time for a change

Is shared parental leave in need of reform?

Previously, fathers were entitled to two weeks’ paid ordinary paternity leave, or a period of between two and 26 weeks' paid additional paternity leave – but only if the mother or co-adopter returned to work.

The new regime was hailed as a significant family friendly and gender equalising initiative, designed to enable men to become more hands-on fathers, thereby encouraging equal parenting, and to stop women feeling they have to choose between a career and a baby.

In practice it means that aside from an initial two weeks of maternity leave for the mother, up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay can now be shared between parents (birth or adopted).

As we all know, the uptake has been disappointing however – only an estimated 1-2 per cent of those eligible have taken up SPL, although this number is growing year on year. 

Is it that the lauded aims are not resonating with new parents despite it being an ostensibly attractive proposition? Perhaps a more accurate explanation is that the SPL process is convoluted with strict eligibility and notification requirements, administrative complexity for employers and employees, and it is simply not affordable for most working families. In short the current regime is a barrier to progress and urgently needs reform. 

What could be done? 

Nothing short of scrapping the existing rules and starting again would achieve what is required; we need to start by enhancing paternity and maternity leave and pay equally for men and women. 

Finland’s recent solution is that mothers and fathers get nearly seven months’ paid leave between them, half of which is non-transferable. Sweden, Norway and Iceland all have some form of non-transferable fathers’ quota, whereby new parents are entitled to a chunk of leave but lose a portion unless the father takes it. Perhaps that is what is needed. 

The policy also needs to be extended to the self-employed (who make up approximately 15 per cent of our workforce), to improve the take up and better support the working arrangements of modern families. 

And arguably we need the government to financially support the scheme so that it does not put start-ups and small organisations out of business. In addition, administrative simplification for all employers and applicants is required.

Clearly, the government has lots on its plate at the moment with Covid-19 and perhaps an overhaul of SPL at the current time is unrealistic. On the other hand, recent events will have forced many working parents to share childcare duties more equitably so it is only logical and could be opportune to extend this model more effectively to new parents. 

If we don’t, think of the longer term cost. SPL will continue to merely pay lip service to a system that pushes women into taking the lion’s share of leave and subsequent child care duties, because that is the only financially viable option for their family. Or at best SPL will be regarded as an elitist scheme used only by progressive professional couples. 

Five years after it was brought in, we need to remind ourselves why this was introduced. If parental leave really can be shared between both parents, we will reap massive benefits as a society, including in the workplace. 

Families will benefit from having more hands-on fathers (and research shows that fathers involved in child-rearing from the outset tend to continue in that vein). Businesses will be better able to retain their female talent and in theory, pregnancy/maternity and sex discrimination in the workplace would be reduced, gender pay gaps narrowed and equal pay issues reduced. And of course, normalising parental leave, irrespective of gender, will help to address negative stereotypes about women. 

Moira Campbell is a senior associate in the employment team at Kingsley Napley LLP