A fairer deal for working parents? May announces new review

In one of her last acts as prime minister, Theresa May has launched a review into parental leave policies. In its sights are more support for fathers and same-sex partners, and parents of premature babies.

Image of new parent cradling baby
Prime Minister Theresa May has set up a new consultation asking for public, employer and representative bodies’ views on parental leave entitlements to ensure “they better reflect our modern society and the desire to share childcare more equally.” Within its remit are questions around whether Statutory Paternity Leave (SPL) for fathers and same-sex partners should be changed, and opportunities to share suggestions on how the shared parental leave policy introduced in 2015 could be improved.The consultation comes at the end of Theresa May’s premiership, which began with a pledge after the last election to address the “burning injustices” and as studies show that current parental leave policies could be improved. It also follows a call from 47 cross-party MPs to improve the current system.According to analysis by the TUC, just 1% of new parents used the shared parental leave scheme in 2018; 9,200 took shared parental leave out of 900,000 who were eligible. 

Tackling the pressures of parenthood through parental leave policies

The 2019 Modern Families Index finds working parents feel overwhelmed by the demands of the modern workplace and face a "parenthood penalty". Respondents reported negative impacts on their health, family life and promotion prospects.The UK’s school summer holidays are currently likely to be putting many of these challenges into sharp relief.This and other studies also suggest significant unmet demand for flexible working, including among parents: Working Families for example finds 86% of parents want to work flexibly, but only 49% of those surveyed do.As to how to solve the challenges, parents in the Working Families survey overwhelmingly agree it is up to employers and the government to ease these workplace pressures: 90% of parents said that employers have a role to play and 92% said that the government has a responsibility to address these issues. In her announcement, Prime Minister Theresa May said: "The experience of parenting has changed almost beyond recognition over the past 40 years, with fathers wanting to share caring responsibilities more equally from the outset."In introducing shared parental leave, we have taken significant steps to support parents to do this, but all too often it is still mothers, not fathers, who shoulder the burden of childcare. It is clear that we need to do more and that’s why today we have launched a consultation calling for views on how we can improve the current system.”

Balancing work, life and incomes

More balanced and financially viable approaches to shared parental leave and better support for fathers have also been cited as important for reducing family stress and improving the gender pay gap.Minister for Women & Equalities, Penny Mordaunt, said: “Shared parental leave is hugely advantageous for both men and women and forms a key part of the government’s equalities agenda.“It allows men to spend more time with their child, helping them to develop that paternal bond, and provides women with vital support at home during such an important time in their child’s life.“The government’s consultation aims to challenge the assumption entrenched in our parental leave entitlements that the mother must be the primary carer in the early stages of a child’s life.“The active involvement of both parents in parenting duties at home has clear benefits for families, for relationships, for childcare, for business and for wider society.“The government believes that changing paternity leave could have an important impact in promoting better gender equality in work and at home. The UK is below the OECD average in terms of length of dedicated paternity leave offered, though highest on length of maternity leave, demonstrating the size of the current discrepancy.”

Reforms 'a step in the right direction'

Commenting on the planned shake-up on parental leave, Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser for the CIPD, said she welcomed this consultation. The CIPD fully supports the need to update parental leave policies to better reflect the changing nature of modern families and progress gender equality at work.“We know take up of shared parental leave especially is low and so discussion of possible reforms is a step in the right direction. The current arrangements don’t go far enough to allow many fathers to take an active role in being with their child in the early days or to allow families balance and choice over how they share caring responsibilities during the first year of a child’s life. Having this choice is also essential if we are to address the ‘motherhood penalty’ many women face in their working life, in terms of pay and progression.“Pay is often called out as a limiting factor behind the poor take up of paternity and shared parental leave, and many people simply don’t feel able to take the leave because of concerns it will reflect a lack of commitment and could undermine their career progression. "Government action to pinpoint and address the sticking points must be coupled with employer action to create cultures where people feel comfortable and confident to request paternity leave and shared parental leave."

What can employers do to help parents balance work and life?

Jill Miller outlined further action employers can take to support parents with their work and home responsibilities, including the "crucial step" of training managers so they are aware of people's rights and positive role-modelling at senior levels.“We also know that seeing is believing so it’s important that businesses have role models at a senior level who have taken such leave and we believe it's good practice that busineses publish parental leave policies on their website as well as making them easily accessible internally," said Ms Miller.“Greater employer provision of flexible working is essential to help families balance caring responsibilities within and beyond a child’s first year. “By thinking more creatively about the types of flexible working they can offer, and ensuring it's available at all levels of seniority, employers are more likely to hold on to talented people who can progress their careers with the organisation. Our recently-published guidance on ways to implement flexible working provides cross-sector examples for employers.”

Parental leave and the gender pay gap

Chief Executive of Working Families, a UK work-life balance campaign body, Jane van Zyl, also cheered the consultation “as great news for families”.“Increasing paternity leave and pay will help fathers share care of their children more equally, and will make progress toward closing the gender pay gap.“There is clear evidence that the longer the fathers’ leave is during their child’s first year, the more involved they are in their child’s life on an ongoing basis.“And better-paid leave drives take-up. Any new entitlement should be introduced alongside a more accessible Shared Parental Leave offer, maximising flexibility and choice for working families.”Highlighting the 1 million fathers in the UK who are not employees and therefore not currently entitled to shared parental leave or pay, Ms van Zyl said of the measures under consultation: “These, and any new leave and pay entitlements, need to be made available to all fathers, regardless of their employment contract, allowing more families to benefit.“To share care on an ongoing basis, fathers need a supportive, gender-equal and embedded flexible working culture to return to.”

Better support for parents of babies needing extended neonatal care

The detail of the consultation includes information around plans to introduce a new Neonatal Leave and Pay entitlement for parents of premature and sick babies who need to spend a prolonged period in neonatal care following birth.Parents would receive one week of neonatal leave and pay for every week that their baby is in hospital. This would be available to mothers, fathers and partners.The new entitlement would mean that fathers and partners will no longer need to rely on taking annual and unpaid leave if their child is in hospital for longer than their paternity leave period. It would also provide them with additional time at home with their child to make up for the time spent in hospital. In the UK, an estimated 100,000 babies are admitted to neonatal care every year following their birth. For fathers and partners, typically their whole 2 weeks of Paternity Leave is spent with the mother and baby in hospital. Where a baby is kept in neonatal care for longer than 2 weeks, a Bliss survey found that around 36% of fathers and partners were signed off sick while their baby was in neonatal care.Said Theresa May, announcing the measures. “Parents have more than enough on their plates without worrying about their parental leave running out and having to return to work before their precious newborn comes home.“That’s not fair and it’s not right. So we’re also proposing a new neonatal leave and pay entitlement to make this time a bit easier for parents whose babies need to spend a prolonged period in neonatal care.”This the CIPD also welcomed: “Discussion of neonatal leave and pay is also an important step forward,” said Jill Miller. “At a stressful and difficult time, forward-thinking employers should make it possible for partners to be present with their family.”

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