Mike Emmott, Public Policy Adviser, Employee Relations
Most fathers will be looking forward to their special day this weekend, as children across the UK celebrate their dads. But prospective fathers might be celebrating too this year, as they’ve received a significant benefit in the form of a statutory right to shared parental leave (SPL). Since 5 April 2015, most working fathers whose partners are also in work and expecting a baby have been able to convert the balance of the mother’s (52 weeks) maternity leave into SPL, and her (39 weeks) maternity pay to shared parental pay.
This will be welcome news for the increasing number of fathers who want to be more hands-on and more closely involved in looking after their young children. It will also benefit a number of mothers who don’t want to take their full entitlement to maternity leave, and can get back to work while their partner takes over responsibility for childcare. Both parents can take leave at the same time, or each can take discontinuous periods of leave. It’s also good news for employers, as staff who work flexibly are likely to be more engaged.
Highly anticipated, the legislation has proved less controversial than many expected and may well qualify as one of the most substantial employment law reforms introduced by the last government. Employers will no longer be able to assume that they are taking a particular risk in recruiting young women, since many young men will also be wanting time off following the birth of a child.
So what’s the downside? Well, the whole scheme will only be effective if fathers actually want to take SPL. Surveys suggest that, although very many do, most don’t think they will be able to afford it. Official government estimates suggest that 2%-5% of men will actually take a period of SPL. A key factor in their decisions will be whether or not their employer enhances shared parental pay to a similar level to maternity pay. It’s crucial for this to be a focus now, as failure to match payments to mothers and fathers may well lead to claims of sex discrimination. This is an area where the Nordic countries have beaten us to the draw. Sweden introduced a ‘Daddy Month’ reserved specifically for fathers under a ‘use it or lose it’ system in 1995, and a second month in 2002; there are currently plans to introduce a third month as of next year. Parents in Sweden also receive 80 percent of their salary while on leave, capped at a salary of €4,000 euros per month.
The UK legislation, on the other hand, takes the existing budget for maternity pay and splits it more evenly between mothers and fathers, but in doing so this leaves much of the heavy lifting, such as reviewing the non-statutory pay and other benefits, to employers.
But this is not a reason to be negative about shared parental leave in the UK. It’s a genuinely radical step to have opened up the scope for fathers to take several months of paid leave around the birth of their child. We can expect over time to see patterns of work and childcare shift in the direction of greater equality as a result.
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