Blog: Could EU plans hold key to UK parenting leave reform post-Brexit?

3 May 2017

Jeremy Davies writes:

Parenting leave experts always knew that Shared Parental Leave (SPL) would disappoint. The international evidence is clear: if governments are serious about encouraging large numbers of fathers to take substantial periods of leave during the baby’s first year (as they should be if they are serious about tackling the gender pay gap and improving children’s outcomes), they need to do two things.

First, offer dads well paid Parental Leave (ideally at full or 80%+ salary replacement). Second, make that leave fathers’ individual entitlement, rather than transferred from the mother (as is the case with SPL); and make the fathers’ leave itself non-transferable – if he doesn’t use it, the family loses it.

In recent weeks, the message that we need a rethink of SPL seems to have hit home with MPs from across the UK’s political spectrum. A letter to Women and Equalities Minister Justine Greening last month, organised by Labour MP David Lammy and signed by almost 50 MPs, including some Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and the Green Party – called for three months’ paid, non-transferable Parental Leave for dads.

Also, this week, a campaign launches to make SPL available to self-employed dads, who are currently ineligible.

So…what is to be done? Surprisingly, perhaps, experts believe that proposals just announced from Brussels could – Brexit notwithstanding – hold a clue to how the UK could shape a more progressive parenting leave system for itself.

The proposals, part of the European Pillar of Social Rights announced last week, seek to establish new minimum standards for Paternity, Parental and Carers’ Leave across the Union; these minimum standards would provide a framework on which Member States would build their future policies.

There are two key elements to the new EU proposals: first, fathers and ‘second parents’ (for example lesbian non-birth mothers) should receive at least ten days’ paid Paternity Leave at the birth of their child; second, they (along with birth mothers) should have access to a minimum of four months’ paid Parental Leave to undertake childcare. This Parental Leave would have to be taken before their child’s 12th birthday; and each father’s or mother’s Parental Leave would be an ‘individual right’ based on his or her own employment record. What’s more, the leave would be ‘non-transferable’: if the parent didn’t use his or her entitlement, it couldn’t be transferred to the other parent and would be lost to the family.

All these periods of leave should, the EU Commission says, be paid at the equivalent of sick pay, as a minimum; and all fathers and mothers should have the right to request to take their leave flexibly, in a part-time or piecemeal way.

The proposals will – if passed by the EU Council and Parliament – impact on each of the 28 EU countries in different ways. Some countries, such as Austria, Slovakia and Denmark, currently offer no Paternity Leave, for example; so following such a framework would represent a significant policy shift.

For the UK, the changes implied appear at first glance to be relatively undramatic. British dads are already eligible to two weeks’ Paternity Leave, paid at £140.98 or 90% of average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) – so on this element of the proposals the UK already exceeds expectations. As for the 18 weeks’ non-transferable Parental Leave – that’s already each UK mum’s and dad’s entitlement (although almost no-one knows about it). Why? Because in the UK this leave is currently unpaid – and the effect of this is that for most parents, even if they know the leave exists, it’s an irrelevance. It certainly does not figure in most couples’ calculations when deciding how to share the caregiving and earning during their baby’s first year.

Paying Parental Leave at the level of Sick Pay (the minimum suggested by the EU) would hardly change that overnight; Statutory Sick Pay in the UK is just £89.35 per week – less than the already-paltry £140.98 that those eligible for SPL can claim.

But if the change (the principle of an independent, non-transferable, paid four months’ Parental Leave for fathers) were to be absorbed into UK law, along with the other employee benefits we’re told will be retained even when we’re outside the EU, it would establish clearly the principle of the State paying fathers, as well as mothers, for childcare, simply because those men are their child’s father, rather than because the mother has chosen to transfer some of her Maternity Leave to him.

As such, it could provide a ready-made starting point for the development of a new, more progressive parenting leave policy post-Brexit – one which is based on all parents, not just biological mothers, taking significant time off to look after their children in the precious first year. And that can only be a good thing – to help reduce the ‘motherhood penalty’ that afflicts so many mothers’ careers, give space and visibility to men’s active fathering, and improve children’s developmental outcomes across their lifetimes.

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