By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor
With opinion on the likely impact of the new right to shared parental leave (SPL) sharply divided between those who anticipate a game-changer (of whom Working Families are at the forefront) and those who expect yet another damp squib, last week Nick Clegg gave the optimists reason to be cheerful with a heavily-trailed speech in which he ‘announced’ that all civil service employees will be offered equal enhanced SPL pay.
Speaking to an audience of public sector workers – including teachers, social workers, local government and NHS staff – the Deputy Prime Minister stated that, from April 2015:
The civil service will be offering equal parental pay and support to all its employees – male and female. As a result, it will no longer just be new mums working in the civil service who can take maternity leave at full pay. Dads will also be able to benefit from enhanced pay for shared parental leave, if both parents choose to carve up their time between them. This means more fathers will be able to afford to take time off to spend caring for their new born children.
In fact, Clegg was recycling old news, the move having first been announced in early September by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, when launching the Talent Action Plan, a central plank of the Government’s ongoing civil service reform programme. Maude stated then:
The civil service’s adoption of the new entitlement to shared parental leave will go far beyond statutory requirements. For the first time, civil servants across government, at all levels, will have the option to split the six months’ full pay usually offered to women for maternity leave. The move [will give] parents flexibility around how they share childcare responsibilities and ensure both parents can retain strong links with the labour market.
Old news or new news, the move is definitely good news. It sets a benchmark for the support of new parents that many private sector employers – both large and small – will need to follow if SPL is to usher in a new era of more equally shared parenting.
The omens are not great. One recent survey of human resources professionals indicated that only 48% of employers offer enhanced maternity pay for up to six months, and that a mere 8% offer enhanced pay to fathers using the existing right to additional paternity leave (APL). And, of course, by excluding the great majority of SMEs and micro-employers without any in-house human resources specialist, such surveys tend to paint a somewhat rose-tinted picture of the wider labour market reality. Research commissioned by the DWP and BIS, published in 2011, indicates that only one in three of all women taking maternity leave from work receive any enhanced maternity pay from their employer.
Then again, another recent survey by Personnel Today and ExpertHR indicated that “most employers that offer enhanced maternity pay will also offer enhanced shared parental leave pay”. The survey found that 56% of those currently offering enhanced maternity pay would also offer enhanced SPL pay to fathers. Reacting to that survey, Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson noted that “shared parental leave will only be a success if fathers are not significantly financially worse off when taking it, and when their employers are wholly supportive of them doing so.”
Ed Bowyer, employment partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, added: “Businesses may be waiting to get a sense of what their competitors are likely to do, but they will need to decide their own policy sooner rather than later.” However, it was “encouraging” that most employers who enhance maternity pay and have already decided their policy are also intending to enhance shared parental leave pay: “This is likely to mean that take-up of SPL will be greater than has been the case for additional paternity leave, where paid leave has very much been the exception rather than the rule.”
It certainly won’t be difficult for take-up of SPL to be greater than that of APL, which has been negligible. As the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) noted in its November 2012 impact assessment of the then proposed system of SPL:
The current system of maternity, paternity and parental leave cannot be described as flexible and does little to encourage shared parenting in the first year of a child’s life. It also perpetuates a gender imbalance in terms of attachment to, and position in, the labour market; reinforcing the culture that women do the majority of caring and are more likely to be absent from the labour force as a result of having children. In so doing, the current system contributes to unequal labour market outcomes for men and women in the longer term.
So, we all have to hope that the Civil Service’s welcome approach on SPL gives the new system a much-needed boost off the launch pad. Time will tell, but in the meantime much credit is due to Nick Clegg, Nicky Morgan, Jo Swinson and others within government who have driven the move towards equality for Civil Service parents, and so provided a benchmark for employers to emulate or – heaven’s above – improve upon.