It has been over three years since the shared parental leave regime was introduced in the UK but a recent survey of expecting parents by the University College London found that the number of parents intending to use the scheme is low. This is consistent with our clients’ experience generally and the government’s estimated figures published earlier this year that around 285,000 couples every year qualify for shared parental leave, but take up could be as low as 2%. So why then, is uptake so low?

The scheme, which allows parents to share the majority of the one year leave entitlement following the birth or adoption of a child, presents a number of barriers to parents wishing to take the leave.

Firstly, not all new parents are even entitled to take the leave. For example, if a mother is already a stay at home mum or carer, their partner will not be eligible to take the leave as the mother would need to be working in order for their partner to qualify. In addition, even if a mother was working and her partner was eligible to take the leave, shared parental leave is not a free standing right. The mother would have to give up part of her maternity leave in order for her partner to take shared parental leave.

The UCL study reported that common reasons for not taking shared parental leave also include financial implications and the fear of the leave having a negative impact on a male partner’s career.

From a financial perspective, whilst the scheme allows parents to share 37 weeks of shared parental pay, the rate of that pay is currently capped at £145.18 per week.  Whilst a parent taking adoption or maternity leave is entitled to 90% of pay for the first six weeks of leave, this is not replicated for shared parental leave which will clearly act as a deterrent for use of the scheme. In addition, employers often offer enhanced maternity or adoption leave pay whereas fewer employers offer enhanced shared parental leave pay meaning that it may not make financial sense for a family to use the shared parental leave scheme if to do so would result in the loss of enhanced pay on offer to one parent.

One other key reason cited by the UCL study for not taking the leave was the fear that taking the leave could have a negative impact on the male partner’s career. This is still arguably down to society’s preconceptions of the role of women as the primary career and a lack of support and understanding for men wishing to take shared parental leave in the workplace.

So how then can uptake be improved?

In February the government launched their ‘Share the Joy’ campaign to encourage uptake of shared parental leave but the general feel is that is not enough. As part of our Future Chemistry campaign, we recently engaged with senior business leaders across a variety of sectors and during those discussions it was felt that more needs to be done at legislative level in order to encourage greater sharing of childcare responsibilities. A free standing right to leave for both parents, together with comparable statutory pay entitlement in some form, seems the most likely option to effectively encourage share of the childcare responsibilities.

In addition to legislative changes, we are engaging with our clients to assist employers to encourage more uptake of shared parental leave. This can involve simplified policies explaining the shared parental leave entitlement, enhanced shared parental pay and training for managers to educate them on leave entitlements and the benefits of encouraging use of the leave entitlement by all eligible employees.

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