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Rachael Revesz: How not to bring up baby

Friday 18 December 2020

The government’s shared parental leave scheme was meant to be revolutionary. Instead, it’s a mess

Exactly a year ago tomorrow, the Queen’s Speech, the annual statement of the British government’s legislative priorities, talked about some pretty wonderful-sounding things. A new Employment Bill, it said, would mandate flexible working, introduce leave for unpaid carers, ensure tips were given in full to workers, and protect women from redundancy and discrimination on maternity leave. About bloody time!

But, as with so much else, a second reading of that Bill has been delayed by Covid, even though Covid has forced many of these issues, such as flexible working, to the fronts of our minds and daily lives. Now, some campaigners believe that this delay could be turned into an opportunity. That the Employment Bill already circulating the corridors of power could be commandeered to overhaul one of the least successful, most complex and financially punishing policies of the past five years – shared parental leave. 

Shared parental leave came into effect in April 2015 and was supposed to be revolutionary, allowing parents to split 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay between them. The idea was to allow couples to share the burden and the joys of childcare, showing dads a new way of life beyond the paltry two-week, often unpaid, paternity allowance and to give mums more options as to when and how to return to work. But it has been a disaster, for several reasons.

First, the system is complex. Similar to maternity leave, shared parental leave is paid. The major difference is it is “transferable”, meaning that the 50 weeks of paid leave are put into a pot and mothers and fathers can dip in and out of it. If you take three months out of that pot, that’s three months less for the co-parent. The model has led some campaigners to argue that one parent is effectively stealing from the other. 

Not only that, but signing up to shared parental leave means the mother has to give up part of her statutory maternity leave (you can’t do both at the same time, nor add one on to the other) and maternity leave is better paid. In fact, shared parental leave is atrociously paid, at less than half the national wage. 

In other words, for a partner not to miss out on their baby’s “first step, word or giggle”, as one former business minister put it, shared parental leave requires a lot of sacrifices. It also doesn’t apply to those in insecure work, or the self-employed – which, let’s face it, is a growing chunk of the population.

For any parents who are still eligible and want to sign up, the administrative obstacle course they have to struggle through will almost certainly break their resolve. The legislation inflicts a lot of paperwork on companies to deal with employees’ leave and there is little, if any, incentive for companies to wade through the forms. (This is not the UK’s problem alone – in Germany, people often shell out €200 a pop, to get help with the parental leave bureaucracy.) It is a nightmare for small businesses, which can’t afford for employees to dip in and out for almost a year – it’s much easier and cheaper to organise maternity leave and hire one person to replace them.

It took three years for the government to notice that shared parental leave wasn’t resulting in thousands of dads strolling around the suburbs with cups of coffee and papooses. They were hoping for 20 to 25 per cent take-up. In reality, it was around 2 per cent.

Perhaps parents just didn’t know about it? Well, the government spent £1.5 million on an awareness-raising campaign, called “Share the joy”. Very few people have done so.

One charity, Maternity Action, has recently proposed a new system. Six months’ statutory, paid maternity leave, plus six months non-transferable leave for each parent, which can be taken together or consecutively, spanning 18 months in total. Mothers would get 100 per cent average earnings for six weeks, and fathers would get 100 per cent average earnings for the first two weeks. Both would get a £300-a-week flat rate after those respective periods, which is double the current level but still not in line with the real living wage. 

For some, Maternity Action’s plan does not go far enough. Other people have suggested six months of well-paid leave for each parent, followed by another six months to share at the flat rate. Yes, the mother may have to physically recuperate if she has given birth, but if the chance to share parenting equally and be paid equally isn’t there, how do we propose to achieve equality?

The UK is already far behind. Unicef ranks us 34 out of 41 OECD countries in terms of family-friendly policies. The US comes last – maybe Biden and Harris will fix that? Top of the list are Sweden, Norway and Iceland. 

As of January, Iceland will go one step better and give five months’ non-transferable leave to each parent, plus an extra two months each to share for good measure. All at 80 per cent of average income. Even countries below the UK on the OECD list are acting faster than us. France, for example, has just doubled its paid paternity leave to 28 days.

In the absence of legislation in the UK, some companies are stepping up to fill the gap. Look at Diageo: a FTSE 100 company – seventh on the Tortoise Responsibility100 Index, incidentally – that offers 52 weeks’ leave (26 fully paid) to both parents if they work at the company, regardless of how long they’ve worked there. The policy extends to having a child via adoption or surrogacy. Baillie Gifford, O2 and Aviva are more examples of companies that are going far beyond the government’s offering. 

Companies encouraging their employees to take parental leave is crucial because, as Unicef notes, even in countries like Japan and South Korea, where men can enjoy long periods of well-paid leave, only a minority of men make use of it. We have to normalise a culture of shared parenting for real change to happen. And, while we’re at it, we also need to overhaul universal free childcare.

As we edge towards a vaccine, there is hope we can “return to work”. But who exactly will be returning? And why are we forcing new parents to live on half the national wage when we can afford to bail out airlines and almost 9 million white-collar workers on 80 per cent earnings? Government spending, contrary to most mainstream opinion, is not equivalent to maxing out a credit card. We can afford to do better.