Big changes in Britain’s parental leave and pay policy

Women have typically borne the burden of childcare within the child’s first year, often resulting in temporary or permanent disruption to their careers.  To minimise this female-gendered burden, the UK’s Parental Leave policy, previously reserved for mothers only, has now been formally amended to include fathers. The new Shared Parental Leave and Pay policy, which went into effect in April, enables both parents to participate on equal terms.

Here’s how it works:

·       Mothers must take two weeks following birth, and fathers are entitled to leave during that period too.  After that, a 50-week entitlement can be split between mother and father in any amount they wish, say 30 weeks for the father and 20 for the mother.

·       Parents are no longer required to take their leave at the same time; they may book up to three separate blocks of leave within the child’s first year.

·       Parents must give employers eight weeks’ notice if they wish to take shared leave, but they can alter the structure of their leave twice during its duration.

·       To qualify for the scheme one parent must have been an employee for at least 26 weeks with their employer by the end of the 15th week before the baby is due (or when the parent is matched to an adopted child). The other parent must have worked for at least 26 weeks in the 66 weeks leading up to the due date and have earned at least £30 per week in 13 of the 66 weeks.

·       Parents must ‘opt into’ the scheme, although mothers who still wish to adopt ‘traditional’ maternity leave without involving their partners may still do so without opting in.

·       The shared parental leave pay is fixed at £139.58 per week, or 90% of the parent’s weekly earnings, whichever is lower. Shared parental pay covers the first 37 weeks only; the remaining 13 weeks are unpaid.

The amendments are an attempt to eliminate the burden of childcare traditionally placed on mothers, but interestingly they also open the door to discrimination claims by men. Many private companies offer enhanced maternity packages to women, including higher rates of pay than the statutory minimum. The new equality standard embedded in the parental leave policy could mean that employers will have to offer the same enhanced benefits to fathers.

Whilst many mothers and fathers will welcome these changes, the policy could still be friendlier to parents. It gives employers the right to stipulate that each parent’s leave be taken in one solid block, instead of fragmenting their leave into several non-consecutive blocks.  Nor are employers required to guarantee the parent the same job on their return to work if their leave has exceeded six months.

Recent surveys suggest that only one in 20 fathers would consider taking advantage of the new policy, due to a number of factors. First, shared parental leave pay is set at a low level.  Given that men still tend to earn more than women due to gender bias, it may be financially difficult for the family if the father takes up his portion of shared leave. Second, it would appear that some men are still afraid to deviate from masculine roles for fear of “making waves” or reprisals by their employers. As Jo Swinson, the Minister of State for Women & Equalities, has noted, when companies have more women in positions of leadership, men feel more able to engage in their family responsibilities – so it may take seeing other men embrace parental leave before it becomes the cultural norm.  In Norway, the government has given a strong nudge in this direction.  Twelve weeks of leave out of a possible 59 must be taken by the father or are lost (and the pay rates are much higher than in the UK), providing a strong incentive for men to take the leave on offer – and they do. In Sweden, Norway and Iceland, more than 85% of fathers take parental leave.

Shared parental leave may have ripples outside the workplace too. Studies in Norway show that men whose children were born under the ‘daddy quota’ system participated in more household chores, whilst girls born after the quota were assigned fewer gendered household tasks. In the UK too, it’s possible that the amended Shared Parental Leave and Pay policy may spark interesting side effects.