Number of parents taking shared parental leave ‘remarkably low’ for third year

Experts say employers have a ‘crucial’ role in increasing awareness and uptake of policy

Experts are calling on the HR profession to help increase the uptake of shared parental leave (SPL), after official figures today revealed that just 9,200 parents took advantage of the scheme in the last tax year. 

According to a Freedom of Information response received by law firm EMW from HMRC, the number of people taking SPL was just 500 higher in 2017-18 compared to the year before, reflecting previous concerns around a lack of support for and understanding of the measure

SPL allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay between them following the birth of a child, but the numbers signing up have remained low since its April 2015 introduction.

“Even accounting for a period of time to bed in the new programme, take-up is remarkably low,” said Jon Taylor, principal in the employment team at EMW. “This is a result of cultural factors such as the gender pay gap, and also the simple economics of parents ensuring they are able to pay for new children.”

Jonathan Swan, head of research at charity Working Families, told People Management that SPL “remains unaffordable” for many new parents. 

“If you combine this with workplace cultures that do not support the idea of men taking longer periods out of the workplace for childcare, gaps in awareness of entitlement to SPL and complex procedures around applying, it’s easy to identify the barriers to higher take-up levels,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Ben Black, CEO at My Family Care, noted that the increase in parents taking SPL was likely caused by a small number of employers “that recognise the opportunity of making this equal is far bigger than the cost of giving men enhanced paternity leave” rather than a wider change in attitudes. 

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said HR had a “crucial” role to play in encouraging greater uptake of SPL. “Line managers also have a responsibility to ensure that they are familiar with their organisational policies on SPL and that they signpost and discuss them with any reports that might need more information,” he added.  

The government is currently carrying out an evaluation into SPL policy, the findings of which are expected to be published early next year. 

Meanwhile, at the beginning of June, a cross-party private members’ bill was introduced to parliament to push organisations to divulge their parental leave policies, in an effort to reduce pregnancy discrimination and increase transparency around parental policies. However, Willmott called on the government to go further. “We’d like to see more action from the government, through consulting with individuals, experts and businesses to make SPL more user-friendly for employers and employees,” he said. 

“Given the very high proportion of working men and women who are parents, it makes sense from a societal and employment perspective to develop an effective framework to support their need to balance work and childcare.” 

A number of legal cases have recently examined the pay on offer to men taking time off following the birth of a child. In April, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that Capita Customer Management did not directly discriminate against a male worker when it refused to grant him additional paternity leave at full pay. 

But, in May, the EAT decided a serving police constable may have been indirectly discriminated against because his employer offered maternity leave at full pay but only statutory rates for SPL. This case has now been returned to tribunal to reconsider.