On 5 April 2015, a new type of ‘family-friendly’ leave came into force. It is known as shared parental leave, and its’ purpose is to allow employees who are new parents greater flexibility to take leave after the birth of a child. It works by allowing a mother to share her maternity leave (and pay) with the father. The mother is obliged to take the first 2 weeks following the birth of the child as compulsory maternity leave, but the remaining 50 weeks of maternity leave can be shared. It is even possible for shared parental leave to be taken by both parents at the same time.
In the absence of a couple deciding to take shared parental leave, the default position remains that a mother is entitled to take up to 12 months of maternity leave.
The scheme came into force as both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised in their 2010 election manifestos to allow greater flexibility for new parents to take leave. These promises were reflected in the coalition agreement following the 2010 election. Critics pointed out that uptake of the scheme was likely to be low, and it would be a financial and administrative burden for employers (note however that employers can usually claim 92% of the cost of shared parental pay – and maternity pay – back from the government).
The scheme has now been in force for over a year and data is now available as to how it is working. The Daily Telegraph reported on 8 August 2016 that in the first 3 months at the start of this year, only 3,000 couples utilised the shared parental leave scheme, compared to 155,000 mothers taking traditional maternity leave. To put is another way – less than 2% of couples chose to take shared parental leave. Anecdotally, this accords with my experience – in the time since the shared parental leave scheme came into force, I have advised many companies regarding employees taking maternity leave, but have yet not come across a situation where a company has had employees taking shared parental leave.
There appear to be a number of reasons why couples are not taking shared parental leave:
- It is often more financially advantageous for the couple to choose the default option of the mother taking maternity leave and not shared parental leave. There is still a gender pay gap in the UK that favours men, and shared parental pay is not generous at £139.58 a week.
- Men worry about the impact upon their careers and the attitude of their peers if they take shared parental leave.
- Men often do not have as much experience looking after children as women.
- Women often do not want to share their maternity leave.
Many of the 3,000 men taking shared parental leave report that it is a fantastic experience. However, given the factors above, it is unlikely that the current shared parental leave scheme will be widely utilised. There are various ways in which uptake of the scheme could be improved – for example increasing the rate at which shared parental leave is paid. In the current political climate, though, this may not happen.