Employers aren’t ready for shared parental leave

Shared parental leave is on its way. Shutterstock pregnant woman

New provisions allowing parents to share parental leave come into force in October and December this year. These will be available to parents in England, Scotland and Wales who will give birth to or adopt a child after April 5 next year. It seems that employers are still not catching on but they need to prepare for this change in the rules if it is going to work.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is a major feature of the Children and Families Act 2014, designed to advance women’s labour force participation and the sharing of childcare more equally between parents. According to business minister Jo Swinson this initiative will “bring the ways mums and dads balance their lives at work and at home into the 21st century.” It will help implement the government’s commitments to modernise workplaces, as announced by employment relation minister Jenny Willot who said they “want these reforms to bring about a culture change in Britain’s workplaces, allowing everyone to better balance work with their personal life in the way that works for them.”

Parents in paid work will be allowed to take a total of 52 weeks off work after childbirth or adoption. The default arrangement continues to be 52 weeks’ maternity leave with 39 weeks’ statutory maternity pay, with fathers (or the other parent in a same-sex couple) retaining their right to two weeks’ ordinary paternity leave plus gaining access to unpaid time off to attend two antenatal appointments.

Under the new rules, a mother could choose to return to work after the initial two-week recovery period and give her unused allowance to her partner, if they are eligible for the new scheme.

The mother who wishes to bring her maternity leave and pay to an end must give her employer an eight weeks’ notice and the balance of leave and pay becomes available as shared leave. Parents in paid work can choose how to share it, but must inform both their employers about their intention. Parents will be able to take shared leave in a minimum of three separate blocks; employers will be obliged to grant a continuous use of shared leave, but can refuse the discontinuous use.

Shared leave does indeed offer an appealing solution. However, there are still some niggling issues in general and several more arise when we start to think about how the policy will actually be implemented by employers.

The new regime seems fairly unpopular with employers, for a start. Law firm Hogan Lovells and My Family Care, Norton Rose Fulbright and The Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed employers in the UK earlier this year, showing that only a minority have a clear idea of how they will implement the new rules.

Many are finding the changes complicated. Administrative burden is turning out to be a particular challenge with the system because considerable flexibility is on offer to parents.

So complicated, in fact, that the large majority of companies are still trying to work out how to introduce shared leave, even though the first requests for leave are expected to be made as early as by February 2015. The majority have taken no action to prepare for the changes and are explicitly concerned with the logistics of sharing information between HR departments in two organisations – the mother’s employer and the employer of her partner.

This doesn’t have to be a logistic nightmare though. The new rules in fact only ask for basic information (in the form of a declaration) and limited supplementary evidence to be shared, which is reasonably practical to accommodate. In Sweden and Slovenia, where parental leave schemes have been in place for the past 40 years, the two employers do not have to communicate at all; everything is co-ordinated between the parents and the designated government agencies.

Another concern is that employers may decide to cut their enhanced maternity benefits back, while offering no enhanced shared leave pay in return. The problem is that companies are not required to create enhanced schemes, and nearly half of those surveyed made it clear that they would only comply with their statutory obligations.

Complying with international standards might also be an issue. The International Labour Organization’s Maternity Protection Convention calls for 14 weeks of maternity leave, of which six must be postnatal leave to safeguard the health of mother and child. The minimum standard in the UK legislation, however, remains a two-week compulsory maternity leave period.

But what could cause real problems is the EU Framework Agreement on parental leave, which sets out minimum requirements on parental leave; it entitles both men and women to an individual right to parental leave for at least four months, of which at least one month should, in principle, be provided on a non-transferable basis. Minimum requirements are set out and are supposed to be brought into national legislation in each member state. Whether the new UK rules will satisfy these requirements remains to be seen.

But before we get to that point, we must be aware that the design, and implementation of laws is every bit as important as the intentions behind them. The UK government has not created a new right here – it is merely allowing parents to split an existing right. As the leave has to be taken before the child’s first birthday, this legislation is, in practice, taking the leave away from the mothers, making the chances of parents (voluntarily) sharing shared leave rather slim.

Public opinion tends to sway towards believing mothers should stay at home when there is a child under school age. According to NatCen, only one in five people thought paid leave should be divided evenly between the parents, showing limited support for the new policy in 2013.

Shared parental leave is a welcome, but complex piece of legislation whose success will depend on its effective implementation.

Getting shared parental leave right can be a shared opportunity for employees and businesses: supporting working families while helping businesses to retain talent. But many UK employers are unprepared for these changes and the government needs to help. My Family Care webinars show that employers would no doubt appreciate further guidance on how to deal with new provision in practice. HR resource packs, practical information and tailored guidance have already been developed but information about how other employers are approaching the problem is needed too. That could come from the UK or from Sweden and Slovenia, where shared parental leave has been in operation for some time.