Shared parental leave: brave new world, or ‘damp squib’?

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

In recent weeks, there’s been a sudden spate of news articles about the new system of shared parental leave, even though it’s not due to come into force until April 2015. This could just be coincidence, or it could be that several writers noticed that the first babies whose parents will use the new system – those born prematurely, and who will therefore be covered by provisions of the new legal regime that will come into force in October this year – are being conceived right now. Well, maybe not right now, as it’s early afternoon as I write this, but you know what I mean.

At the same time, several government ministers involved in steering the Children & Families Act 2014 through Parliament have used keynote speeches to promote the new regime. Last month, the BIS employment relations minister, Jenny Willott, jokingly apologised to her audience for “banging on” about shared parental leave:

“But I’m really proud of the fact that we’re bringing it in and I think it’s really important. It will send a very important message about a father’s role in caring for their children and a woman’s value both in the workplace and in the family. And in the long term it will enable women to have more choice over their career progression and allow parents more choice on how to arrange childcare and give father’s a real chance to take more responsibility for their children when young.”

A couple of weeks later, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, asserted that the 2014 Act will drag our “clapped out rules [on parental leave] into the 21st Century”. And last week , during a speech on labour market flexibility, Business Secretary Vince Cable expressed his deep satisfaction at “having extended the right to request flexible working and introduced shared parental leave. I am convinced that these [will] help talented people manage complicated lives, and improve the quality of the workplace.”

Outside government, however, such confidence is not so universal. Earlier this month, new research by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) suggested that  almost a third of fathers would not even consider using shared parental leave. Of those, 45 per cent said this was because of the shockingly low rate at which statutory leave will be paid – some £140 per week, or just 60 per cent of the national minimum wage. 

Almost 90 per cent of human resources professionals and employment lawyers surveyed by law firm Norton Rose in March believe there will be low take-up of shared parental leave by fathers, and the Institute of Public Policy Research has expressed severe doubt about the prospects of greater take-up of leave by fathers. Most pessimistically of all, this week the Fatherhood Institute’s Adrienne Burgess predicted that shared parental leave will be a “damp squib” and will have “no impact on uptake by fathers and therefore no impact on women in the workplace”.

So who is right? Well, it certainly won’t be hard for take-up of shared parental leave by fathers to be an improvement on take up of additional paternity leave since its introduction in April 2011: official figures indicate that a mere 3,900 fathers received statutory additional paternity pay in 2012/13 (though that represents a 100 per cent increase on the previous year, so things were going in the right direction). And many of the employer members of Working Families tell us that shared parental leave “makes a lot of sense for younger fathers” and that they expect to see increasing take-up among their staff.

Time will tell. As will the monitoring of take-up of shared parental leave that we are told will be conducted by BIS, which should result in greater clarity than has been the case with additional paternity leave.

Watch this space!

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