Martyn McLaughlin: How fathers could spend more time with their kids

Shared paternity leave was a fine idea, but in practice its shortcomings are clear to see, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Fathers have been slow to take up parental leave, largely because of the drop in earnings
Fathers have been slow to take up parental leave, largely because of the drop in earnings

There can be no better example of a well-meaning policy which has been rendered next to useless by a lack of holistic thinking than shared parental leave.

Two-and-a-half years have passed since the flagship initiative was rolled out by the UK government as a way to encourage more men to take time off with their children and bring about more equitable working arrangements.

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The scheme allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave after their child is born, 37 weeks of which is paid at a rate of £140.98 a week or 90 per cent of a parent’s earnings – whichever figure is lowest. At the time of its introduction, it was hailed in some quarters as a Nordic-style revolution which would allow both parents to retain links with the labour market while embarking on a new adventure as a family. Perhaps most crucially of all, the scheme was viewed as a way to make it easier for fathers to pursue a more prominent caregiving role.

The authors of the scheme knew fine well that such a seismic cultural shift could not be achieved overnight. They predicted interest would be minimal at first, with uptake perhaps peaking at around eight per cent among men. In hindsight, achieving that figure would have been a resounding success.

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The reality is that, as things stand, a paltry one per cent of fathers are making use of the scheme, with research showing that a quarter of men are unaware of its existence altogether. A sizeable proportion of those who are aware may well be inclined to sign up, but some longstanding problems prevent them from doing so.

The irony is that many involve the kind of gender disparity that shared parental leave (SPL) was designed, in part, to remedy. Fathers routinely find it more difficult to change to more flexible working arrangements, employers are still more likely to supplement maternity pay levels than they are paternity pay or SPL levels, and the gender pay gap means that a family’s finances are disproportionately compromised when a father takes leave.

Such a situation is disappointing, but it should not come as a surprise. Any policy which hopes to bring about longstanding social change takes time to take root and it would be rash to dismiss its efficacy altogether after just 30 months.

But even though that single percentage point is likely to creep up a notch or two in the next few years, I remain doubtful that SPL will have the impact we were promised.

The single biggest barrier to progress is not the perception that men should somehow perpetuate their image as a family’s main breadwinner, it is much simpler than that. It boils down to – what else – money.

You need only look to research by the University of Edinburgh and Fathers Network Scotland, commissioned by the Scottish Government, to realise that for many fathers and their families, the notion of taking time off work after the birth of a child is not a viable option.

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While 90 per cent of men in the top quintile for household income take leave of some kind following the birth of their child, the number plummets to an alarming 43 per cent among those in the bottom quintile. Simply put, a scheme such as SPL sounds good and ticks all the right boxes, but it remains a luxury that many cannot afford.

That is why a new study by the Fatherhood Institute should prompt a closer look at how to change things for the better. The publication, Cash or Carry, contains many positive points. It notes, for example, that more fathers than ever before are keen to find a balance between their work and home lives. Yet it also reveals that employed fathers are almost twice as likely as mothers to have their requests for flexible working rejected. The institute has proposed a series of possible solutions, the most intriguing of which is its call to scrap SPL altogether. Instead, it recommends replacing it with a non-transferable period of 13 weeks’ leave, known as a father’s quota, to be taken in the first 12 months after a child’s birth. Fathers would receive 90 per cent of their salary – a capped rate – for a fortnight’s statutory paternity leave, while the first four weeks of the quota would be paid in line with current statutory maternity pay. The remaining nine weeks, meanwhile, would see them receive the existing statutory minimum of £140.98 every seven days.

Such an overhaul is far from perfect, but it would go some considerable way to removing the financial barrier which prevents many men from taking time off work. And if simply increasing the levels of paternity pay seems like a crude device, rest assured that it works. In countries like Sweden and Norway, where new parents receive at least 60 per cent of their pay on leave, between 85 and 90 per cent of fathers take some time off.

It is only 14 years since new fathers in Britain secured the right to statutory paternity leave and six years since parents were allowed to choose how they divided up the job of caring for their newborn, following the rollout of additional paternity leave. The introduction of SPL has been another step along that road, but the evidence suggests is taking us sideways.

At a time when more new fathers are desperate to play a full role in the first weeks and months of their babies’ lives, it is time the policy was revisited. History has shown there will be cultural resistance to such a sweeping change, but it will be worth it.

Caring for a newborn should not be a sacrifice, but a right.