Out-Law News 2 min. read

"Huge cultural shift" needed before UK can embrace shared parental leave says expert

The UK must undergo a "huge culture shift" if Government plans to allow parents to share parental leave are to overcome inequalities in the workplace, an employment law expert has said.

Sarah Clayton of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that any steps towards "a more shared approach to parenting" should be welcomed.

The Government is set to announce its new 'flexible parental leave' system later this month, according to the Daily Telegraph. The proposals will allow mothers who are the main household earner to return to work a fortnight after giving birth if they choose to do so, the paper said. It added that the system is likely to be introduced from 2015.

A commitment to the introduction of a more flexible parental leave system was included in the Coalition Agreement (36-page / 475KB PDF) in 2010. The policy is part of a Government drive to "encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy", according to the agreement.

Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated his commitment to a "more shared" system in a magazine interview over the summer. He said that flexible parental leave would make it "not only morally, but economically, unacceptable" for employers to reject job applications from women of child-bearing age as a result of fears that they would become pregnant.

Plans to create a more flexible shared system of parental leave, enabling both parents to "share parenting responsibilities and balance work and family commitments", were announced in May as part of the Queen's Speech. The Government introduced extra paternity leave rights in April 2011, allowing fathers to take  a period of  additional paternity leave  which must be taken within a "window", that starts 20 weeks after, and ends 12 months after, the child's date of birth.

The Government previously consulted on the introduction of a new system of shared parental leave which would reserve four weeks for each parent in the first year of the child's life but allow parents to split the remainder between them. Mothers would retain the existing 18 weeks' maternity leave entitlement around the time of the birth, along with current statutory maternity pay (SMP) and maternity allowance (MA). According to the Telegraph, however, mothers will only be forced to take two weeks' leave "for health reasons" under the final proposals.

New fathers are currently entitled to up to two consecutive weeks of 'ordinary statutory paternity leave', which must be taken within eight weeks of the child's birth, with pay at the lesser of the statutory amount of £135.45 per week or 90% of average weekly earnings. 'Additional' paternity leave is unpaid, unless the mother has any of her statutory maternity pay entitlement still outstanding in which case the balance will be paid to the father.

Employers are able to claim back 92% of statutory paternity leave payments, while small businesses entitled to Small Employers Relief can claim back the full 100% plus an additional amount in compensation for their portion of the National Insurance contributions made on the payment.

"Any steps towards a more shared approach of parenting must be welcomed as an attempt to overcome the inequalities faced by women of child bearing age in the workplace," employment law expert Sarah Clayton said. "However, there would need to be a huge cultural shift in the UK for us to embrace the Scandinavian model of truly shared parental responsibility."

Research by Pinsent Masons in May showed that although the number of men taking statutory paternity leave had increased by 14% over the previous year, only a small fraction of those entitled to the benefit were claiming it. According to information disclosed to the firm by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the number of employees claiming paternity pay rose to 194,000 in the year to March 2010 from 170,000 the previous year. However, three times as many women received statutory maternity pay in the same time period.

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