Bake a cake and put out the bunting. Shared parental Leave (SPL), the family-friendly policy that allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave when a child is born, is four years old today! At some point in the near future, there could be a second reason to celebrate as the leave may get a much-needed shake up.
Why so? What’s happening? It transpires that Jo Swinson MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat party, has introduced a Private Members Bill to Parliament that would address one of SPL’s biggest shortcomings. If passed, the Bill would extend SPL to the self-employed, a group of people who have long been excluded from anything but the most basic benefits when they have a child.
Swinson was an Equalities Minister in the days of the Lib Dem / Conservative coalition Government. Replacing the old, inflexible maternity and paternity leave systems with SPL was a high point in her career but even she has long-recognised SPL was in need of some reform.
This announcement was made at a discussion that took place yesterday between Swinson and a bunch of dads, of which I was one. Swinson And Her Dads (SAHDs, see what I did there?) met at a nursery near Westminster in Central London.
The dads had a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Some were in the midst of taking SPL, one guy had recently taken a six-month spell of SPL while another had wanted to take SPL but was unable to. The final few, and I include myself in this group, never benefited from taking SPL, but have a professional interest in following the policy closely (not to mention a few dads who happen to be bloggers including Han-Son, Giles and Simon).
Under normal circumstances, I’d call such a discussion a round table. This, however, was more of a gathering around Fisher Price toys and, being a nursery, we were sat on chairs of various sizes, some of them meant for children. Having set the scene, here’s what was discussed.
The current state of play
Certain commentators and elements in the media will do all they can to try and persuade you this family-friendly policy has failed. The general feeling among us all was that men wanting to take SPL faced challenges, but that it was something we should feel optimistic about.
It’s a little-recognised fact that some men are taking unpaid SPL. As they’re not being paid, no data is kept on them. As a result, the number of men taking time out of the workforce to look after infant children is likely to be higher than is reported.
Also, larger employers such as Aviva, O2 and Diageo have all taken steps to improve the enhanced paternity pay they offer employees. Would this have happened without the introduction of SPL? There’s a strong argument to say “probably not.”
Culture must change
There was consensus that workplace culture is changing, but there is much more to do. Some of the dads said their employers were very clued up on SPL, but this wasn’t universal. It was widely acknowledged that many employers need to change their culture and accept that many men want to take the leave.
As mentioned above, bigger employers seem to be taking steps to implement equitable SPL policies. While the big employers are implementing more liberal policies, many small and medium sized enterprises are still catching up.
What next for SPL and fatherhood?
If Swinson’s Bill becomes law, then it will address a major shortcoming of SPL. As things stand, if one person in a couple is self-employed, neither can benefit from SPL. This is a massive issue that stops many couples from enjoying the flexibility offered by SPL.
With politicians focused on Brexit, Swinson may face an uphill task to get her Bill through Parliament. That said, it’s very difficult to justify why the self-employed shouldn’t benefit from SPL. The self-employed are paying more tax these days thanks to reform of the tax system so why shouldn’t they get more in return? The self-employed don’t get paid holiday entitlement or a host of other state benefits. It only seems fair they should be provided with this one benefit at such a crucial point in their lives.
The one point to mention about SPL is that it does away with the brutal two week paternity leave that used to exist. If a woman has a caesarean section or a couple already has children, having dad around for two weeks, the maximum amount of leave before SPL was introduced, is pitiful. The self-employed are not immune from such complications and should receive help when they need it most.
Getting back to our Round Fisher Price Toy Discussion, I offered the opinion that ring-fenced leave should be introduced for dads as happens in many Scandinavian countries (and a similar period of ring-fenced leave solely for mums to make it equitable). This, I feel, would encourage men to take SPL and force employers to accept that men will exercise their right to taking the leave.
I am passionate about that point, but the other big change we all felt could be made was to improve paternity pay. At present, many men can’t afford to take SPL because they are the main earners in their households. Not all employers enhance the basic paternity or parental leave pay so dad simply has to keep working when their child is born. As a result, mum is forced to stay at home even if the couple wish to work things out differently.
Swinson made a suggestion that could go some way to addressing this. She said she wants employers to publish their parental leave policies. Having these made public, she felt, would encourage senior management to look closely at their policies and take action to remedy any inequalities between male and female employees.
Moving on from SPL, I made the point that SPL, while a very important policy, mustn’t be seen as the be all and end all of fatherhood. There are other issues such as flexible working and the birth certificate issue that still need addressing.
A lot has happened in four years
There is much more I could say about this discussion. I would simply say the fact it took place is a sign of how much things have changed for the better in four years. This wasn’t a discussion about possibly introducing SPL, it was a discussion about how it can be improved involving a group of involved fathers and an influential politician. That is a sign of progress in itself.
I personally feel one of the successes of SPL is the fact it has created discussion and debate about fatherhood. It’s not simply a fact of whether men and women are taking SPL, it’s got people thinking differently and more positively about fatherhood. Slowly but surely, fathers are being included in discussions about parenting. Us dads are rarely an after-thought or add on. It’s a change I’ve noticed over the past few years and I think SPL has a lot to do with it.
There’s more to do to encourage dads to be more hands on. There’s more to do to improve SPL. Four years on from SPL’s introduction, those discussions are being had.
What do you think of SPL? Has your family benefited from taking it? Maybe you are self-employed and think this Bill could correct a long-standing issue with the policy? Whatevr your opinion, I encourage you to leave a comment below.
4 thoughts on “Shared Parental Leave is four years old and reform is on the cards”
SPL was well over due four years ago. It being available even if not used is one step further toward reducing the idea of historically defined roles between Mum and Dad. And that is ace!
My little lady was born before SPL was around unfortunetly. I feel that because I wasn’t about in the early days as much as I could of been with SPL, I missed out on alot.
So a reform which would close the gap between employed and self employed parents is something I welcome most warmly!
Yes, it was well overdue. I’m told that before SPL was proposed, policymakers were looking at extending maternity leave by another year. Think of the impact that would have had!
Shame you feel you missed out. I totally understand while you would feel that way and great to hear of another dad supporting Jo’s Bill. I’ve already written to my MP…I would encourage you to do so too!
John, hi, interesting article, thank you, and to hear of this proposed change to SPL legislation (of which I was not aware). It struck a chord because of my past, current and (possible) future experiences around this topic…
We have 1 child, our daughter who is 2 and a half. Before she was born, I was working in a contract role and looking for a permanent job. I would not have qualified for SPL had a I remained in the contract role and, even if I had found a permanent job before she was born, I would not have qualified for it in my new role (as I would not have been in the company long enough before the due date). I therefore decided to quit the contract and spend time with my wife and daughter, effectively on ‘unpaid partenity leave’, whilst continuing the permanent job search. We were in a lucky enough financial position to be able to do this, although we had to raid the savings and tighten our belts (epsecially as it took me a month or so longer than planned to find the job I wanted).
I wouldn’t have changed this for the world but I do think there are unintended downsides to the link in the current legislation between the right to take SPL and the length of time you have been with a company before the due date – and we all know what a moveable feast those dates can be!
I think it would be fairer, and less restrictive, to link the right to take SPL to the length of time you have been with a company before you actually want to take the leave. For example, even if you had been with a company for only 1-2 months before the little one arrives, if you actually wanted to take leave when you’re little one was 9 months old (say, to allow your partner to return to work and when you had therefore been with your company for 10-12 months) it does not seem right that you would be prevented from doing so just because you had not been with the company for at least a slightly arbitrary period of time before the due date.
I understand why, for employers, it might be difficult if someone takes a job and then suddenly departs for 6 months on parental leave. But the current legislation risks preventing someone moving jobs because they want to take some SPL or, vice versa, from taking SPL because they really want or need to move jobs.This could have an unknown detrimental effect on the job market and/or prevent the increased uptake in SPL that everyone seems to (rightly) crave.
Having just read what I can online about Jo’s proposed reform, I understand that, if passed, the requirement to have been in a company for at least a certain period of time before the due date to be able to qualify for SPL would be removed (ie. it would become a right on day one of your time with the company)?
On a related note, I’ve just seen that Lulumelon has (admittedly in the States) introduced enhanced parental leave rights ( https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-13/lululemon-expands-full-paid-leave-to-workers-who-become-parents ) – but they distinguish between those who have worked for the company for 2 years (3 months paid leave) and those who have worked there for 5 years (6 months paid leave). My reaction is that everyone should qualify for the same parental leave rights, whether you have been there 1 year or 10 years. Their enhanced rights are also apply only to full-time workers, presumably excluding someone who still, say, works 4 days-per-week. Not an approach that Jo Swinson, nor I, would support!
I’ve not yet had to think about SPL whilst in my current job, but I do unfortunately feel that, whilst there is a policy in place, the culture and personalities, especially at management level, would not be truly supportive of it. I try to work flexibly on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, but I have had negative comments about my ‘visbility’ at work, even though noone has complained, or can complain, about my standard of work or availability when needed. These comments make me fear the reaction (even if unspoken) were I to request parental leave in the future. The fact that these comments have come from men shows that there is still a lot of work to do to challenge the stigmas and stereotypes around gender diversity and equality at work, and in society as a whole, from parental leave to flexible working, and everything else in between. They also highlight the point you make about the headlines (rightly) lauding the larger companies who are making strides in this areas, whilst forgetting that many medium-to-smaller enterprises are lagging behind.
Finally, we would like a second child and, when the stars align, we still will not qualify for SPL under the current rules. This is because my wife has started her own business. Jo Swinson’s proposed reform therefore gets our wholehearted support. Fingers’ crossed that those who get to vote on it can take their eyes of the Brexit ‘prize’ for long enough to realise the benefits that this reform to SPL would bring to the country, both socially and economically.
I would be interested to hear of your experience of writing to your MP, somethign I’ve not done before. Did you get any response and, if so, a positive reaction?
Ps. If you’re still reading, thank you for doing so. The comment became far longer than intended!
Thank you Robin and sorry for the delay in responding! Best of luck if you have further kids. Interesting you say you took unpaid leave (albeit by leaving your contract job). The Government figures do not include men who take SPL on an unpaid basis and there’s a theory that many, many men are doing this so the figures could be much higher than are generally reported.
You’ve also picked apart some of the biggest holes in the legislation as it exists. The rules are quite restrictive, another reason why take up has been low. it is generally acknowledged that the most gaping hold is the failure to extend SPL to the self-employed, even though the tax burden on them has been increased. length of service, yes, that is an issue too.
My MP wrote back to me requesting more details so that’s a positive sign at least. Thanks for your response. Great to have such a detailed reply from someone who is living through this!