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Is parental leave failing parents?

2 Aug 2019 By Andrew Weir

With pitiful levels of take-up for SPL, Andrew Weir explains why the UK’s parental leave system needs drastic changes to truly be effective

Just before Theresa May left office, in an attempt to leave a positive lasting legacy, she put the wheels in motion for more new fathers to have the opportunity to spend more time with their newborns. 

In July the government launched a consultation into parental leave entitlements, with the hope of providing longer paternity leave and introducing neonatal leave for partners of sick or premature babies.

Whilst this is an excellent move forward and we hope that it will result in significant positive changes, the government needs to address the reasons why the current shared parental leave opportunities are not being taken up to the expected degree. Primarily, because it is not an affordable option for many.   

In 2015, the government introduced Shared Parental Leave (SPL) to give greater childcare flexibility for parents in the first year after their baby is born. SPL is available to both birth and/or adoptive parents, allowing both parents (providing they qualify) to share a period of leave to care for the new member of the family.

Whilst this sounds like an excellent initiative and a huge step towards equality in workplace opportunities, the take up has been relatively low. From a sample of 285,000 couples, as few as 2 per cent took up SPL, according to government statistics.

The reason for this is the current level of pay available for those that take the leave. Whether it is one parent or both that takes the leave, they only receive one pot of Statutory Shared Parental Pay (SSPP) between them. This amounts either £140.98 a week or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings, whichever is lower.

The more commonly known statutory maternity or adoption pay (SMP or SAP) when available, has a higher value but is only available to mothers or one parent respectively. This amounts to 90 per cent of average earnings for the first six weeks and then £140.98 a week for 33 weeks – and can also come with employer enhancements.

In practice this often means that, due to affordability reasons, the parent on the lowest income before any statutory payments will be the person that takes up the longest leave period with its associated pay.    

Crucially however, while gender pay gap reporting is trying to bridge the gap between gender pay differences, the person most likely to be on the lowest income is, with regret, often female. 

What’s the solution? 

The government has started to get the dial moving, but it really need to work with employers to find the right balance.

The government could take steps including aligning SSPP and any qualification criteria to SMP and SAP, or by increasing the SSPP, SMP & SAP rates. In Poland, for example, the government offers SMP at 80 per cent of an individual’s usual salary for the whole year, or 100 per cent for the first six months and 60 per cent for the remaining part of the year. Could a similar programme not be implemented in the UK?

The government could also widen SSPP from one shared pot to two for eligible parents; 

Employers have a part to play too. They could align enhanced SSPP to enhanced SMP and SAP, and offer flexible work options that can support both parents as they strive to meet both their professional and personal responsibilities i.e. the ability to move start and stop times, work from home, or take time off as needed.

These proposed steps mean that the government will have to reach deeper into its pockets. Given Boris Johnson’s opening speech as prime minister and his aims to “level up across Britain with higher wages, higher living wage, higher productivity”, parental pay and leave should be recognised as a significant contributor to the overall productivity of the company and consequently, needs to be addressed. 

Whatever the solution is to this conundrum, one thing is certain – if the current status quo remains, there will very likely be no change in the take up of SPL from the current mere 2 per cent of couples. Women will continue to shoulder most of the responsibilities of early years childcare, potentially disrupting career development while fathers miss out on spending time with their newborns.  

Andrew Weir is head of employee relations and advocacy at Moorepay

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