Shared parental leave (SPL) was introduced six years ago and allows parents to share statutory leave and pay following the birth of a child. The idea behind SPL is that it is intended to give parents greater flexibility in how they care for their child in the first year. However, since its inception, the uptake of SPL has been very low, at around only 3-4% of eligible fathers.
As a result, a number of campaign groups, including Maternity Action, the Fawcett Society, the National Childbirth Trust, the Royal College of Midwives, the TUC and the Women's Budget Group are currently urging the government to reform the current SPL scheme.
Recent employment decisions
SPL is available to both birth parents and adopters.
The statutory rate of pay for SPL is currently the lower of £151.97 a week or 90% of average weekly earnings. The number of weeks' pay available to be shared between parents is 39 weeks.
Many employers choose to enhance the pay for maternity and adoption leave but not the pay for SPL. Therefore, one of the reasons that the uptake of SPL is so low is because it is often not as financially beneficial as it is for the mother or adopter to take their full entitlement to maternity or adoption leave and pay. This is highlighted by a number of recent employment tribunal cases that have dealt with pay during SPL. These have confirmed that it is not direct sex discrimination for an employer to offer enhanced pay for maternity and adoption leave but not enhanced pay for SPL.
In November 2017, a government minister announced that the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) would conduct an evaluation of the SPL scheme in 2018. However, the evaluation has not yet been published and there are reports that BEIS is still only processing the data related to SPL. A number of campaign groups are disappointed by this lack of progress, particularly highlighting inequality issues that have arisen during COVID-19.
Maternity Action has published a recent article stating that: "the Covid-19 crisis of the past year has thrown a harsh light on deep structural inequalities in UK society that present a serious challenge to the Government's laudable ambition to 'give working parents the choice and flexibility they need to combine work with family life'. Time and time again, research has shown the burden of repeated economic lockdowns, and the closure of schools and childcare providers, falling 'predominantly' on women. Yes, fathers have been doing a little more childcare than they were before the onset of the pandemic. But mothers have been doing a lot more. So, we desperately need policy that supports and encourages more equal parenting to feature prominently in Government strategy as the UK emerges from the Covid-19 crisis. And that means scrapping the failed [SPL] scheme, and replacing it with a more effective and equitable system of maternity and parental leave".
Campaigners' proposed reforms
Many campaigners are calling for a complete transformation of the current SPL scheme in the form of a "use it or lose it" period of non-transferable paid leave for parents. The idea is that it would encourage fathers to take this option instead of "losing" the leave.
This type of policy is already being used in other countries. For example:
- In Sweden, which has one of the most generous policies in the world, both parents are entitled to 240 days' leave, 90 of which are earmarked as a minimum for each parent, and the remaining 150 days can be transferred to the other parent upon consent.
- In 2006, Quebec introduced an additional five weeks of "use it or lose it" parental leave. Within a five-year period, it was reported that the rate of fathers taking paternity leave rose from 22% to 84% (compared with only 11% in the rest of Canada). This led the federal government in Canada to make changes to parental and maternity leave in 2019. Previously, parents could take 35 weeks of paid leave to split between them. The changes meant that there were an additional five weeks' leave, provided that parents share the leave and benefits, creating an incentive for fathers to take the time off work
Campaigners' proposed reforms to the current SPL scheme would aim to bridge the workplace inequality gap by giving women the option to return to work (if they so wish) at an earlier date and would also likely mean that more men would be out of the workplace for a longer period than just two weeks (making the leave more akin to leave that women take). These would also allow co-parents to have a greater role in the early stages of their child's life, which many feel they are denied at the moment due to the limited statutory entitlement.
Whilst employers have no legal obligation to allow longer than two weeks' paternity leave, some employers have already adopted their own "universal" parental leave system where, regardless of their gender, new parents can choose to take a certain number of weeks off work on full pay. This has been warmly welcomed by employees, and it seems likely more and more employers will follow.