Parents are still in the dark about their eligibility for shared parental leave (SPL), more than three years after the landmark scheme’s introduction, new government research has found.
The research report, Return to work: parental decision making, which was prepared by the Behavioural Insights Team on behalf of the Government Equalities Office and published late last week, revealed that “parents often lack a sound understanding of SPL eligibility rules, and are not aware that it is a legal entitlement for eligible parents”.
Some of the small sample of parents taking part in the qualitative element of the research said they thought access to SPL was at their employer’s discretion.
SPL, which was introduced in April 2015, essentially allows eligible couples to share up to 52 weeks of leave between them after the birth of a child, although the mother must take off the two weeks immediately following the birth and the leave must be taken in a defined number of blocks.
“Increasing awareness of SPL, how it works and what people are entitled to is a critical step in increasing take-up,” said Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD. “HR has a key role to play here and needs to think creatively about communicating SPL to the workforce, beyond having a formal policy.”
Jonathan Swan, head of research at Working Families, told People Management that employers had a “clear role” in communicating SPL’s technicalities and benefits.
“It’s also really important for employers to send the message that SPL isn’t just technically possible, but is actively supported as a genuine option for mothers and fathers,” Swan added. “If employees, especially fathers, feel that their manager or organisation’s support for SPL is muted, then take-up is likely to remain low.”
The government’s nudge unit also found that women were sometimes adverse to SPL because they disliked the idea of losing some of their maternity leave to their partner. “I saw my maternity leave as mine and I wouldn’t want to give anything to [my partner]... it’s when you start splitting it someone has got to lose,” said a mother from London who contributed to the research.
The study also warned that many couples would be financially incentivised for mothers to take on more childcare duties, because women were likely to be the lower earners and many employers enhanced their maternity offerings but not their SPL packages.
Critics have slammed SPL for failing to live up to expectations. A freedom of information request obtained by People Management last June revealed that only 7,100 men received shared parental pay in the 2016-17 tax year, compared with 221,000 who received statutory paternity pay in the same period.
Meanwhile, a CIPD survey of more than 1,000 HR professionals, published in December 2016, found that only one in five (21 per cent) had been approached by a male employee about taking SPL.
And Jennifer Liston-Smith, director and head of coaching and consultancy at My Family Care, noted that a 2017 My Family Care white paper, Who Shares, Wins, ”highlighted the significant barrier experienced by many couples in understanding both statutory provisions and their own companies’ policies”.
Pay for parental leave has been hotly contested in tribunals recently. In April, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that Mr M Ali was not directly discriminated against when his employer, Capita Customer Management, refused to grant him additional paternity leave at full pay.
However, less than a month later, the EAT decided that Mr Hextall, a serving police constable and new dad, may have been indirectly discriminated against because his employer paid full pay for maternity leave but the statutory minimum for SPL. That case has now been returned to tribunal level to be reconsidered.