Why it’s time to rethink shared parental leave

The take-up of shared parental leave is small, but more could be done to increase its popularity with fathers, says Raoul Parekh

Since the idea was a glint in Nick Clegg’s eye, pretty much everyone has agreed that shared parental leave (SPL) is a good thing – or at least that its heart is in the right place. HR professionals and employment lawyers might have blanched at the nine sets of regulations the government took to bring it into effect, but there is clear consensus that the aim of the policy is a laudable one: giving parents the flexibility to share leave between them, with the hope that childcare responsibilities will be become more equal.

But as the first SPL babies celebrate their third birthday, all is not well. The main issue is that (almost) no one is taking advantage of those voluminous regulations. Some statistics suggest that take-up could be as low as two per cent of eligible fathers – even the optimists don’t think it exceeds eight per cent. Either way, SPL is in danger of being a micro-success but a macro-failure. There are a scattering of happy fathers taking time away from work to care for their new arrivals, but scant sign of progress in redressing the historic gender inequality in childcare responsibilities.

What’s the problem?

Multiple commentators have pointed to the lack of proper pay during SPL as a major deterrent. Employers are not obliged to match shared parental leave pay to the level of enhanced maternity pay (if they offer it). The other big factor is availability of leave: mothers have to cut short their leave for fathers to take advantage of the scheme. If the mother does not want to (or is not able to) return to work early, the father cannot take the leave, even if his employer would otherwise match his normal pay. Recent research from University College London (the first formal study of SPL) has confirmed the importance of both these factors.

So far, the government is not doing much to fix this. It has conveniently decided that the real problem with SPL is the only one that requires no parliamentary time and no ongoing spending commitment to address. The government’s view is that people aren’t taking advantage of SPL because they just don’t know about it. 

The answer therefore is a £1.5m publicity campaign by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to get the word out (three years too late). So far, the campaign has led to a poorly designed hashtag (#ShareTheJoy, dominated by bible quotes on Instagram and cute animal videos on Twitter), some sponsored posts from notable ‘daddy bloggers’ and precious little societal change.

Time for change

All this is obvious and predictable. It’s time for the government to match its rhetorical commitment to addressing these issues with some concrete steps to move the dial. There are three easy policy moves the government should make.

First, extend SPL by 12 weeks, but reserve the period solely for fathers. Then mothers wouldn’t have to give up their maternity leave to return to work early to enable fathers to spend time at home. Keeping the existing 52 weeks means that when a mother does return early, there is scope for the father to be at home instead. 

Second, pay for those 12 weeks on (at least) the same terms as maternity leave – with employers able to reclaim the cost from HMRC in the same way. This would remove the enormous pay penalty facing all fathers whose employers do not choose to top up the low statutory pay levels. Without this move, most families will simply not be able to afford to have two parents at home simultaneously. It’s also fair that the cost of furthering our common gender equality goals is spread across society and not concentrated solely on employers.

Finally, this time, run the publicity campaign when the new rights are created: don’t wait three years for people to notice. 

Raoul Parekh is a partner at specialist employment law firm GQ|Littler