Shared parental leave uptake still ‘exceptionally low’, research finds

Experts call on government to better incentivise SPL but also stress employers’ role in making fathers aware of their rights and normalising men’s involvement in childcare

Only 2 per cent of eligible couples made use of shared parent leave (SPL) last year, meaning uptake was still “exceptionally low”, according to research by law firm EMW based on HMRC figures.

The use of SPL increased by 23 per cent last year but only 13,100 couples applied to the scheme, the figures showed.

The research revealed nearly 650,000 women claimed maternity pay last year, meaning that only 2 per cent of eligible couples made use of SPL. EMW described the scheme’s uptake as “exceptionally low” given it was introduced five years ago, suggesting the low rate of pay on SPL could be a disincentive for couples.

The benefit, introduced in 2015, allows couples to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory shared parental pay between them, at a maximum rate of £151.20 per week. 

But, given not many employers enhanced paternity pay alongside maternity leave, “few couples [were] willing to see their primary earner’s income fall to little more than £600 a month”, the EMW research pointed out, with most couples instead opting to take advantage of company-enhanced maternity leave offerings instead.

If the scheme was incentivised better financially, this could help eliminate the gender pay gap and reverse the trend of women taking the brunt of childcare responsibilities while fathers returned to work, EMW said.

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Jon Taylor, principal at EMW, said parents had not been given a “compelling reason” to use the scheme, as men were often the primary earners and as such their pay being cut to £150 a week was often “unpalatable if not impossible” for couples to manage. Taylor called on the government to raise the level of statutory parental pay. This “could make a genuine impact on some women’s earnings if they were in a position to return to work more quickly”, said Taylor. 

EMW also called on the government to better promote the scheme, as many people were “still unaware that sharing parental leave [was] possible”.

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, said that while the government had recognised the need to reform its current system, the pandemic had exacerbated the short-term issue of low take-up rates.

“The case for improving leave entitlements for fathers and partners is now more urgent than ever, and ensuring paternity and shared parental leave is properly paid, and introducing a period on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, is crucial to maximising take-up,” said van Zyl. 

“In the shorter term, we’re very concerned that fathers and partners that have lost their job, have just started a new job or become self-employed during the current pandemic will miss out on any paid leave at all during their new child’s first year. We’re calling for the urgent introduction of a day-one right to paternity leave, and a paternity allowance and adoption allowance equivalent to maternity allowance, to ensure new fathers and partners don’t miss out.”

Nic Hammarling, head of diversity at Pearn Kandola, added that organisations also had a crucial role to play in changing the status quo on parental and paternity leave. She said men were often intimidated by the idea of asking their employer for time off work for childcare purposes as most benefits and initiatives in this area, such as flexible working, were aimed at women.

“The bottom line is that drastic change must take place if we are to address the problems with paternity leave, and the responsibility for ushering that change doesn’t lie solely with one party,” said Hammarling. 

“We must see myriad changes taking place across society as a whole. We must see the myth that women are better than men at looking after children debunked; we need to see organisations putting more effort into making sure flexible working policies are accessible and that new fathers are aware of the rights they are entitled to; and experts in the diversity and inclusion field must also make sure they aren’t providing consultation that benefits women to the detriment of men.”

These latest figures on SPL followed previous EMW research on paternity leave, which found that only 208,000 fathers claimed paternity pay last year (ending March 2020), compared to 649,000 women who received maternity pay. 

This uptake had increased from 130,000 men claiming in 2005-06 to 209,000 in 2012-13, but remained static since then, with EMW blaming the low rate of statutory paternity pay and social stigma.