by Jamie Atkinson, Manchester Law School, Manchester Metropolitan University
Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced for parents of babies born or children placed for adoption on or after 5 April 2015 (by the Shared Parental Leave Regulations 2014). SPL is a more flexible version of its predecessor and enables parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave, 37 of which can be paid, during the first year of their child’s life (or first year of adoption). Parents can take that leave in continuous or discontinuous blocks and take some leave together or independently. A key policy aim was to encourage fathers (widely defined) to take a longer period of leave to care for their child, provided that their spouse or partner had either returned to work or given notice to return.
To date, SPL has failed to attract fathers to take it up in any great numbers. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that, on average, only 5% of eligible fathers have taken up SPL, and over half of organisations reported no take up at all. It is clear that the low level of remuneration available for parents taking SPL is a critical factor in poor take up rates. While eligible mothers are entitled to 6 weeks statutory maternity pay at 90% of their average earnings (and many employers provide enhanced contractual pay), parents on SPL are only entitled to 90% of their average weekly earnings or £139.58 per week, whichever is the lower. Research by Working Families identified that concerns about the complexity of the procedure for taking leave, the cultural acceptability of fathers taking leave and concerns about the cost of SPL were the main barriers which were holding employers back from embracing the policy more enthusiastically. There are clearly flaws in the policy itself but also deeper cultural barriers to be overcome.
In theory, SPL has the potential to challenge long established assumptions about caring roles in families and enhance child development in the short and longer term. Therefore it is a policy worth fighting for. But can this failing policy be revived? If SPL is to become more successful in increasing take up among fathers, employers hold the key. They can address the low level of statutory remuneration by offering enhanced contractual pay to employees, even to the extent of matching it with their level of maternity pay. There is some evidence that this is already happening. Perhaps more importantly, they can also change organizational culture in workplaces where fathers are reluctant to ask for SPL because they fear negative consequences in terms of their job stability and/or career progression. But they have to want to do so.
This is not to deny that many fathers need to reassess their own relationship with work and to what extent it is bound up with their own self-image. But they can be encouraged to do so if they perceive that workplace culture is favourable. Fathers need to stand up and tell their employers that they want to take more than just two weeks’ leave immediately after the birth. But reluctant employers also need to be convinced that encouraging fathers to take SPL will benefit their business. Many charities which support working families are fully engaged in this debate, but more needs to come from the government. It will require a more sustained effort to persuade employers that SPL is something that would make fathers feel more fulfilled and so help retain existing employees and attract new ones.
 CIPD – Labour Market Outlook, December 2016, www.cipd.co.uk/Images/labour-market-outlook-focus-on-working-parents_tcm18-17048.pdf
 Working Families – Shared Parental Leave: the perspective from employers, www.workingfamilies.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Working-Families-SPL-briefing-paper-January-2016.pdf
 See note 2