Women and Equalities Commission challenges the efficacy of Shared Parental Leave

Article

17 July, 2018

Earlier this year, the Government launched an innovative £1.5 million 'Share the Joy' campaign to encourage more parents, via advertising, to take up the offer of Shared Parental Leave in their baby's first year. Research from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy suggested the uptake for Shared Parental Leave had been as low as 2% of the estimated 285,000 eligible couples since the scheme was launched in 2015, and that up to half of the general public were unaware of the right to Shared Parental Leave.

The Shared Parental Leave scheme aims to ensure both parents can share childcare and maintain their career in the baby's first year. Eligible parents are permitted to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after having a baby. The time can be taken separately, or they can be at home together for up to 6 months. Parents can also share up to 37 weeks of Statutory Shared Parental Pay paid at £140.98 per week (or 90% of their average weekly earnings, whichever is lower) which is the same as the last 33 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay. To be eligible, they must be an employee who has worked continuously for the same employer for around 40 weeks.

In March, the Women and Equalities Committee published it's "Fathers and the Workplace" Report, which called for an alternative policy to replace Shared Paternal Leave. The proposed policy provided for 12 weeks' paternal leave and pay at 90 per cent of salary for the first four weeks, with the remaining eight weeks paid at statutory levels.

In its June response, the Government accepted the need for change but rejected the proposal: "The Government is committed to shared parental leave. The policy is still relatively new and has had little time to bed in… We are currently assessing the impact that the publicity campaign has had on raising awareness and more activity is being planned in light of that."

The Government also felt that Shared Parental Leave offered parents more flexibility than a self-standing right for fathers. "In that regard Shared Parental Leave has the potential to be more transformative, over the longer term, in promoting more equal sharing of childcare responsibilities and work responsibilities between parents, both in the first year and beyond, precisely because it encourages a discussion and a 'maternal transfer'".

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller MP, said: "Dads are calling for change and the Gender Pay Gap will not be tackled until dads get the support they need to support their children too. Our inquiry heard from a range of well-informed voices including employers, unions and fathers themselves. Many cited the poor take up of key initiatives such as Shared Parental Leave as sign they are not working. It is regrettable that more of this evidence base has not been acted upon."

Shared Parental Leave has attracted criticism for failing to address the financial impact parental leave may have on families. Given that men on average still get paid more than women, it can be a financial sacrifice for the higher-earning partner to take time off work. However, time taken out of their career by women on maternity leave no doubt contributes to the disparity in pay. It is difficult to see how this could be redressed without providing couples with the flexibility to share leave.

If the Government's 'Share the Joy' campaign is successful in raising awareness, addressing the cultural stigma of fathers taking extended periods of time away from the workplace to provide childcare, and encouraging a greater uptake of Shared Parental Leave, it is feasible this will have a positive impact on the gender pay gap.

Given the flexible nature of the scheme, it can be difficult for employers to get to grips with the various different ways employees can take advantage of Shared Parental Leave. However, the Government's response to the Commission demonstrates that it is committed to the scheme which appears to be here to stay. It is imperative that employers get to grips with employees' rights under the scheme. If in any doubt, employers should take legal advice to ensure that the scheme is utilized in the optimum way for both the employee and the employer; minimizing the impact on the workplace and providing the required flexibility to the parent. The Employment Team at Forbes Solicitors are experienced in advising and supporting employers in relation to their obligations under the scheme. If you are looking for more information in relation to Shared Parental Leave or any of our services, please view our Employment & HR section. You can also contact our Employment and HR team by telephone on 0333 207 1135. Alternatively, send your enquiry to us through our online contact form.

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