Shared parental leave (SPL)
The principle of the Act should be applauded. Hurrah for finally having some legislation to formalise gender equality in the childcare arena, and for challenging the assumption that childcare is the mother’s concern, or that fathers only want to take 2 weeks off with their newborns.
This act offers a real life choice for parents to divide time with their babies – or even take time off together and be a family, not just at weekends!
But in practice …
This month (April 2015), the new Shared Parental Leave and Pay Regulations came into effect. The regulations aim to offer more flexibility to parents as they provide the legal right to time off and pay in order to share caring responsibility for the first year of a child’s life. The regulations replace Additional Paternity leave and offer a new alternative to up to a year’s maternity leave for working mothers. Mothers still have to take compulsory maternity leave for 2 weeks after the birth of their child, but can then choose to share the remaining 50 weeks of leave with their partner as Shared Parental Leave.
Over complicated and confusing
The actual meat and bones of the legislation have been widely criticised: overcomplicated, confusing, wordy and, most worryingly, open to interpretation. The latter means that much of the application of Shared Parental Leave will be based on case law and how companies actually deal with the legislation in practice.
SPL is open to interpretation. There are many scenarios to think through.
Certainly, it’s not straightforward. It is difficult to summarise the legislation succinctly; hats off to anyone who can reel off the list of qualifiers for both parents (email us for a checklist). There are added complications if the father or partner is self-employed; businesses must now deal with the possibility of parents taking blocks of time rather than one long period of absence. There are all sorts of scenarios that must be thought through: imagine, for example, a couple have met at work and have a child. Potentially the employer could face the issue of how to cover both employees being away at the same time on SPL, or both taking several stints of SPL. The regulations are fast becoming known as an administrative nightmare. And this is only the beginning.
Financially, mothers are better off taking maternity leave, even if their employer only offers the statutory minimum pay.
There is also criticism that SPL is unaffordable for parents: it is paid at the same rate as Statutory Maternity Pay, but without the first 6 weeks being paid at 90% pay as they are for maternity pay. Moreover, any mothers who receive enhanced maternity pay (over the statutory minimum) would automatically be worse off if they or their partner took SPL. Perhaps this explains the limited uptake: according to Personnel Today, only 8% of UK organisations have received applications for SPL to date (notice to take SPL began at the start of this year).
Businesses must also consider that if they offer enhanced maternity pay, they should also offer enhanced pay for SPL, or risk a sex discrimination claim, thus there is a potential increase to costs for businesses.
It's complicated. Preparation is key.
Whenever such a piece of legislation is introduced it is important to retain perspective. Although it may be complicated at first, this is actually quite a modest change. The regulations only apply to the first year of a child’s life, so it is a twelve month period to manage. Mothers can still opt to take 52 weeks maternity leave and this may continue to be the best option for some families. Not every family is going to take SPL. But some will. As always, preparation is key. Employers can prepare themselves by taking time to understand the regulations and establishing a policy and process for shared parental leave. Existing maternity and paternity policies will need to be updated to tie in with the new Shared Parental Leave and pay regulations.
Has the legislation gone far enough?
We still lag behind our Scandinavian counterparts.
Some would argue that this legislation doesn’t go far enough and that more should be done to encourage or enable fathers to have time at home and to support mothers to go back to work. We are still lagging behind our Scandinavian counterparts in terms of what we offer for state childcare provision: Sweden has the most generous childcare benefit in the world (and the greatest number of women in senior management positions), offering over 15 months of parental leave, the majority of which is paid at 80% of salary (Guardian 31st May 2014). By comparison, Britain is ranked among the most expensive in the world, with an average cost of £11,700 p.a. for two children in childcare (BBC 4th March 2014). Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have promised enhancements to the statutory two week Paternity Leave period if they come to power and it is very much a political issue which may lead to further changes down the line.
It's a step in the right direction.
These regulations should be hailed as a step forward in challenging stereotypes of stay at home mums and male breadwinners. It’s OK to be those things, but only if you want to be, and this is about formalising the right to choose. If nothing else, these regulations have got people talking and thinking about childcare as a workplace issue in a way that nothing else has.
Claire Healy, HR Consultant