Shared Parental Leave

Dad and Mum-BirthIn the coming year a multitude of dads will get the opportunity for unprecedented involvement with their newborn children. NICK THORPE offers a primer on Shared Parental Leave and its exciting implications.

SCOTLAND’S new deal for dads has already begun. Ever since last summer, when the first eligible babies were conceived, parents and their employers have been preparing for the advent of UK Shared Parental Leave, which applies to all births due on or after 5th April 2015.

That means that parents of children born prematurely will need to begin their leave any time now. Indeed, the first dads to benefit from the new arrangements may already be out there, experiencing that heady mixture of love, awe and sleep deprivation – knowing that it could be months before they need to go back to work.

Here at FNS we wish them the very best and hope this quick guide will help ease the advent of Shared Parental Leave for both parents and employers. It’s an historic opportunity and a green light for fathers in particular as caregivers at the centre of our children’s lives. So why not hit the ground running?

What’s the basic idea?

Shared Parental Leave does what it says on the tin. Parents can now decide between them whether and how they want to share the mother’s 52 weeks of maternity leave 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance. It is designed to give parents more flexibility in how to share the care of their child in the first year.

So dads don’t have to get involved?

No. Unlike Sweden and other countries where a “use it or lose it” entitlement to extended paternity leave means that virtually all fathers get stuck in to parenting from the start, the UK version is optional at this stage. Parents will be able to share a pot of leave, and can decide to be off work at the same time and/or take it in turns to have different blocks of leave to look after the child.

How do we know dads will grasp the opportunity?

We don’t – and change tends to be gradual. Even government projections anticipate only a 2-8 per cent take up rate at first, and recent research reveals cautious interest from the public at large. But at FNS we believe it will accelerate an already significant cultural shift towards an acceptance of fathers as hands-on parents.

What’s your evidence for that?

It’s already happening. A few decades ago, stay-at-home dads were unheard of – now 229,000 of us are caring for our children in the home – double the 111,000 recorded just 20 years ago in 1993. Jo Swinson MP, one of the architects of the legislation, told us she believes Shared Parental Leave will speed up that trend, as dads get to try out being primary carers without sacrificing their jobs.

So employers can’t refuse to grant leave?

No – it’s the law for all employers, as long as employees give eight weeks’ notice of their intentions to take it. And if circumstances change, you and your partner can change your plan twice during the year-long leave.

I want to be more involved before my child is born – any changes there?

Some modest changes, yes. Fathers will also get a new right to unpaid leave to attend up to two antenatal appointments.

Not all fathers are biological. What about adoptive parents?

They’re included too, of course. The new deal applies to any children matched or placed for adoption on or after 5 April 2015.

What are the employers saying?

It varies from enthusiasm to downright trepidation. Change can be painful for business, and Nick Clegg and his team made some concessions to get the legislation through in the first place. For example bosses will have to agree any proposed pattern of time off and have the right to insist it is confined to a continuous block.

So where do my rights end and negotiations begin?

Check out this excellent detailed guide from ACAS – then jump in with both feet. The UK government will review the take-up of shared parental leave by fathers and decide whether to extend it – for example in extending paid paternity leave and pay – “once the economy is in a stronger position”.

So what’s the position on pay at the moment?

Critics say that’s one of the biggest shortcomings of the deal. The statutory rate of shared parental pay (like paternity pay) is paid at below-minimum-wage level (£139.58 per week from April 2015) – and many, including our friends at the Fatherhood Institute believe most families won’t be able to afford to share the leave because the dad is more likely to be the higher earner.

Won’t more enlightened employers offer better deals?

Undoubtedly – and here at Fathers Network Scotland we’ll be highlighting best practice employers over coming months as Shared Parental Leave beds in. But the fact remains that only about a third of new fathers will be eligible because BOTH parents need to be eligible if the mum is to transfer her maternity leave to the dad. And self-employed dads aren’t eligible at all!

Ouch! Why can’t we be more like Sweden?

Give it time. Even Swedish fathers took a while getting to 90 per cent take up – and we’re not doing too badly compared to other countries. And for all the legislation’s alleged shortcomings, FNS believes that Shared Parental Leave is a step in the right direction – who knows where we might be in ten years’ time if enough dads have the courage to take up what’s been offered at this stage?

NICK THORPE is National Development Officer for Fathers Network Scotland