Shared parental leave (SPL) and shared parental pay are new statutory rights that were launched in 2015. They were hotly anticipated by employers whose HR and legal teams spent many hours getting to grips with the raft of complex regulations and drafting detailed policies to explain the new entitlements to staff. It was much trumpeted by the government of the day as the first step towards a Scandinavian-style nirvana where men and women share childcare equally and women maintain their careers.
However, parents were not as impressed, and the expected surge of applications failed to materialise; estimates suggest take-up rates of SPL have been as low as 2 per cent of eligible couples. Three years later, the government is spending £1.5m on a marketing campaign, ‘Share the joy’, to encourage more parents to use SPL. So where did it all go wrong? Why do parents need to be pushed into taking up their statutory entitlement? Understanding how SPL works casts some light on the issues.
Who is entitled to SPL?
SPL is available to couples where one of the parents qualifies for maternity leave and/or statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance. It is also available to those who adopt or have a child through a surrogate.
Only employees, ie, those employed on contracts of employment are eligible. Self-employed parents are not eligible for SPL. Even Andrew Griffiths, the government minister in charge of promoting the Share the Joy campaign, had to admit he couldn’t take it as he is an officeholder rather than an employee. Broadly, employees must have started working for their employer before they got pregnant and earn at least the lower earnings limit (currently £113 a week).
When can it be taken?
Shared parental leave has to be taken within a baby’s first year. One of the stated attractions of SPL is that parents can be on leave together, for up to six months. Alternatively, parents can take leave separately and in up to three blocks interspersed with periods of work – if their employer agrees.
What can be shared?
Theoretically, up to 50 weeks of leave can be shared. The mother must take a minimum of two compulsory weeks of maternity leave before moving on to SPL. Eligible parents can also share up to 37 weeks of statutory shared parental pay.
How does it work?
The partner in a couple who is taking maternity/adoption leave must agree to give up their leave, converting it to SPL and giving notice to their employer that they wish to do so.
Why the low uptake?
The government possibly thinks the problem is a lack of awareness, but this seems unlikely. No single factor explains the unpopularity of SPL – there are likely to be several – but economic concerns are highly relevant. Statutory shared parental pay, currently £140.98 a week (or 90 per cent of average weekly earnings, if lower), won’t pay the mortgage for many.
The financial reality is that, for many couples, it is entirely rational for the partner who earns less to stay at home. While lots of employers offer enhanced maternity pay, the entitlement of those taking shared parental leave is less clear.
Some litigation has already reached the employment tribunal on this question and there is likely to be more, but the risk is that employers ‘level down’ for all, including women on maternity leave, if it looks like they will be forced to offer enhanced contractual pay to more parents. Ironically, without such enhancement, SPL is likely to remain unattractive for the majority.
Ben Power is senior partner at Springhouse Solicitors