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Couples shun shared parental leave – but why?
Shared parental leave (“SPL”) was introduced in 2015 as a progressive policy allowing eligible parents to split maternity leave between them and thereby share the joys and challenges of having a new-born child.
Purported advantages include a reduced impact on the work commitments and career ambitions of mothers when compared with maternity leave, and increased opportunities for fathers to bond with their child.
So, surely couples would be queuing up to take advantage of this new opportunity, right? Wrong. A combination of red tape, financial disincentives, and cultural stigmas have resulted in applications for SPL being limited to a single-figure percentage of workers in the UK.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that SPL is not always promoted by employers alongside maternity and paternity leave entitlement. Equally, passing up generous maternity leave packages offered by some employers in favour of shared parental leave can have a detrimental effect on overall income, at a time when there is another mouth to feed. Additionally, to some extent, gender role stereotypes continue to play a part in influencing the decisions of new parents.
The eligibility rules when applying for shared parental leave include a minimum length of employment with the company and an eight-week notice period. If the criteria are met, the mother must take two weeks maternity leave after the birth but can then switch to SPL for the remaining 50 weeks of the statutory maternity leave period, 37 of which are paid. The 50 weeks can be allocated between a couple in the following ways:
- each parent takes half the allocation in turn (25 weeks each)
- parents take the allocation in alternating blocks
- parents take the allocation jointly (e.g. 25 weeks together)
Employers are required to accept certain valid applications and pay the required amount, most or all of which (depending on the circumstances) can then be reclaimed by the employer through reduced NI contributions.
However, both employers and employees alike have complained that the SPL system is too complex and needs to be simplified. Concerns have also been raised about the ability of employees of smaller companies and self-employed workers to take advantage of SPL. Other claims include suggest a direct correlation between the low take up of SPL and the gender pay gap. The Government has responded to these issues by including SPL in a consultation which is to take place on how best to resolve gender divisions of parental leave and pay.
Companies themselves are also looking at creative alternative approaches to SPL, although it is easier for large organisations with greater resources to do this. Meanwhile, some countries have introduced enhanced paternity leave packages with some positive effects.
Whatever the future may hold for SPL, something clearly needs to change to encourage its growth.