Andrew Wallace: Income drop stops both parents taking leave

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Four years on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave and it has not taken the UK by storm. In 2017, it was reported only 1 per cent of those eligible utilised it.

Why so low? And why did the UK implement shared parental leave in the first place?

It was introduced in an attempt to emulate successful policies across Europe. Sweden was the first to establish a shared parental leave format in 1974, 41 years before the UK.

Parental leave policies are an indicator of a country’s approach to gender equality. In Iceland, one of the leading countries in terms of gender equality, fathers account for 45 per cent of the total parental leave benefit usage.

Many European systems have an extended portion of leave that must be taken by the mother’s partner, placing importance on the 
partner spending time with the child to share the care burden. This, in turn, allows mum the option to return to work sooner. It also gives the comfort of knowing a child is being left with her partner, rather than trusting assistance from a third party.

Sharing leave not only helps ebb away any career detriment mum may suffer for being out of the office for extended periods, but it also chips away at traditional gender roles.

A key reason why UK take-up of shared parental leave has been so low is because of the income provided. £148.68 per week from the state is not enough to persuade parents to choose shared parental leave. This is 22 er cent of the average UK salary; in Iceland and Norway, the state provides 80 per cent of an employee’s salary.

Many companies offer enhanced maternity pay, but the norm (at the moment) is not to replicate this for shared parental leave. This puts fathers and partners at a disadvantage. Ending maternity leave to kick-start shared parental leave simply often doesn’t make financial sense. This might appear unfair to fathers and partners wishing to spend time with their child, but the courts have held any such disparity in policies to be legitimate.

The primary reason is because the courts view the main function of maternity pay as allowing the mother to physically recover from childbirth. Establishing a bond with her child is secondary. The primary reason for shared parental leave is to help families create a bond with a new-born child, so it’s fair, the courts decided, to view each type of leave differently.

This has resulted in the law placing less emphasis on shared parental leave. It can only occur if the mother agrees to bring her maternity leave to an end. This creates an imbalance between views on maternity leave and shared parental leave.

In Sweden, society has reached a stage where it is frowned upon if the father/partner doesn’t take parental leave. The question for them is not if they are going to take it, but for how long. Cafes are littered with “latte dads”.

In the UK, extended periods of parental leave being taken by fathers/partners is not the norm. There is a sense career prospects will suffer as a result of extended leave. Until more fathers and partners are encouraged to utilise their right, the fear of “being awkward” won’t change.

Despite being around for four years, there are still parents unaware of their right to share their parental leave or enjoy it together. The right is not being widely publicised. How many people actually read their staff handbook to make themselves aware of their employment rights until their situation requires it? Employees more often become aware of an employment right when a colleague has utilised it or spoken about it.

If the UK wants to develop a fully functioning shared parental leave policy, wholesale changes are required. The current imbalance between maternity leave and shared parental leave must be addressed and leave must be attractive for fathers and partners alike.

Primarily it needs to look at pay. If it is too much of a financial burden for the state, parliament needs to look to encourage private companies to provide the same support for fathers as they do mothers. Maybe companies of a certain size could pay a percentage of salary to staff for a certain amount of time, or maybe provide a certain amount of leave to both parents?

Either way, the current model isn’t working. Until there is a major review, policy on shared parental leave will not fulfil its potential to support families to share the caring burden of a new born child and remain a parliamentary token gesture .

Andrew Wallace is an Associate with Balfour+Manson