Shared parental leave unlikely to improve gender equality

03 July 2013 Shared parental leave proposals, which are to be introduced under the Children and Families Bill, have been met with concern in the House of Lords.

3 Jul 2013| News

03 July 2013

Shared parental leave proposals, which are to be introduced under the Children and Families Bill, have been met with concern in the House of Lords.

The plans, which will allow mothers to share their parental leave with fathers in weekly blocks, were broadly welcomed, as equality in terms of childcare arrangements encourages further equality in the workplace.

However, it is clear many people share the Institute of Employment Rights’ concerns that the proposals are not strong enough to make a significant difference. It was noted by both Baroness Hughes of Stretford and Baroness Lister of Burtersett that the government expects as few as 2 – 8% of fathers eligible for shared parental leave to take it, according to the Coalition’s impact assessment. To be eligible for shared parental leave, both mother and father must be economically active and will need to have been in their jobs for 26 weeks by the 15th week before the baby is due. This contrasts sharply with current maternity leave laws, which allow pregnant women to take leave from Day One of their service to an employer. Lord Stevenson of Balmacara noted that only 285,000 of the 782,000 maternities in 2010 would have been eligible for shared parental leave due to these restrictive measures: that’s just 36% – hardly a policy that encourages equality.

There are many reasons why only a tiny proportion of UK workers are expected to take up the new rights, but the issue that has perhaps received the most criticism is the denial of independent rights for fathers. Under the new plans, mothers will be able to transfer some of their 52 weeks of maternity leave to fathers. This shared parental leave will top-up the fathers’ statutory right to two weeks of paternity leave paid at the flat rate. Additional paternity leave was extended to fathers in 2011, allowing maternity leave to be ‘shared’ once the mother had returned to work, but so far only 1% of eligible parents have taken this up. International evidence shows that without independent rights for the father and paternity leave provided on ‘use-it or lose-it’ basis, take up is low. Original plans in the Modern Workplace Consultation were to follow this more effective approach to shared parental leave, but the proposals have since been scrapped with the government citing economic weakness as the cause.

Another much-criticised aspect of the plans is that the warmly welcomed proposals in the Modern Workplaces consultation to allow parents to take their parental leave on a part-time basis, while returning to work part-time, have also been scrapped. Now parents will have to take their leave in blocks of at least a week in length, and is suspected that employers will pressure parents to take their leave in one long block to make it easier to cover their positions while they are gone. Not only does this make shared parental leave much less flexible than it could be, it is also important to note that statutory pay rates for parental leave are currently significantly lower than the National Minimum Wage. Baroness Lister cited evidence from charity Working Families which suggested lower income families would have benefited greatly from part-time leave, which would have allowed them to top up this rate of pay with their wages. Without this right available to them, poorer families will be effectively barred from shared parental leave all together.

Taking leave from these well-worn criticisms, Baroness Drake and Lord Knight tackled the bill from other angles. Baroness Drake appealed for shared parental leave to be extended to grandparents, who also frequently play a caring role. Lord Knight called for the same rights provided in the case of maternity to be applied in the case of bereavement, noting that some employees are expected back at work just one week after the death of a child.

Finally, the calls for Day One rights also applied to the right to request flexible working conditions, which the Children and Families Bill proposes to extend to all staff. While this in itself is welcomed, the way in which flexible working rights are framed in the law continues to weaken them dramatically. The Institute of Employment Rights has previously criticised these rights for remaining only the ‘right to request’, with the employer only ever obliged to consider that request without necessarily allowing it. Baron Stevenson noted that in the Bill, the right to request flexible working conditions will only be triggered after six months’ service – therefore, employees are not even legally protected if they simply ask for flexible working conditions before they have been in their job for half a year.

Related resources:

  1. IER briefing on the Children and Families Bill