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An insult to Britain's families: Spring 2024 tweaks to UK paternity leave

Last week we were invited to share our thoughts on the Government’s new tweaks to paternity leave. Our Deputy Chief Exec Dr Jeremy Davies told BBC TV News, the Radio 4 Today Programme, BBC 5 Live and others that the changes were “an insult to Britain’s families”.


The UK’s statutory paternity offer, the least generous in Europe, gives eligible fathers just two weeks’ leave, paid at a statutory pay rate so low that it costs an average earning dad more than £1k to take two weeks off, compared to what he’d earn if he stayed working. Around one in five fathers aren’t even eligible, because they’re self-employed, not classed as an employee, or have changed jobs within the previous ten months.


 

What are the new changes introduced by Government? 

The Government’s changes mean that from April, fathers will be able to split the leave into two blocks, won’t have to give so much notice before they take it, and will get £11.55 more per week in statutory paternity pay (up from £172.48 to £184.03 per week). These are minor amendments to a system in serious need of reform.

 

chart showing paternity leave in european countries

The timing of the new rules, in the week of both International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, could hardly have been more ironic.

 

The Tories have just chosen to miss a huge opportunity to get behind involved fatherhood – an undeniable social good that matters not just for fathers themselves, but for mothers and gender equality too – and, crucially, for babies. Research shows that when fathers take leave in their baby’s first year, they’re more likely to become and stay involved as hands-on caregivers; and that when this happens, mothers get back to work earlier, couples are more likely to stay together, and children do better.


couple with young toddler chatting together

Unbelievably, it took five years for the Business & Trade Department to come up with today’s amendments, despite good evidence that the current system fails to meet families’ needs – not to mention those of a modern, forward-thinking society with a low and falling birth rate.

 

In two separate responses (one to our open letter, and another to our petition - signed by more than 14,000 people across the UK), they’ve told us that if fathers want to take more time off, they can use shared parental leave. But only 1% of eligible mothers and 5% of eligible fathers use SPL, because it’s paid at the same derisory rate as paternity leave, and because fathers’ ability to access the leave depends on their partner giving up some of hers.

 

On pay, the Government has clearly decided that responsibility for funding parenting leave should rest firmly with employers; it describes statutory paternity pay as a ‘floor not a ceiling’, despite that floor now representing less than half the National Living Wage.

 

 

How are employers engaging with this issue?

Can we rely on private companies to ‘do the right thing’ for dads? Some certainly do, as a growing number of organisations step in to fill the gap in statutory provision by introducing ‘gold standard’ offers, like 26 weeks’ leave on full pay for all parents, regardless of gender. But most can't afford to – and sometimes those who could, get things spectacularly wrong.  

 

Enter Severn Trent, which has raised more than a few eyebrows with its shiny new leave policy: for mothers, 52 weeks’ maternity leave at full pay and for fathers, 2 weeks. That’s quite the Mother’s Day present, if you’re into 1950s-style family roles. If you’re a fan of gender-equitable parenting…not so much. 


We could criticise the company for failing to invest more creatively in paternal as well as maternal caregiving. But like most UK employers, the company has simply followed the Government’s lead on the amount of leave parents can take, and amplified the gender inequality baked into the statutory system by committing to paying them at 100% salary.


group of people at work in office

This is exactly why we need a statutory system that creates a more equitable basis for employer enhancement. We shouldn’t be reliant on individual employers – especially those without the resources to innovate in this area – to create paternity, maternity and parental leave offers that meet their staff’s needs and deliver on crucial social policy objectives, like gender equality and the best outcomes for children.


 

What are we doing about it?

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this over recent weeks, as we work out a long-term strategy for our campaign for a statutory paternity offer that includes 6 weeks’ well-paid leave for fathers, paid at 90% of their average weekly earnings.

 

Labour – the party tipped to form the next government – has yet to commit to anything  very specific on parenting leave reform, and seems unlikely to do so in the run-up to the General Election. For their part, the Tories have made emphatically clear they don’t plan to change their tune, and are going down the ‘leave it to market forces’ route.

 

father holding his baby in his arms

So we expect to have to play a long game to achieve our goals. That means doing what we can to lobby for change in the corridors of power both before and after the election – but also building a solid base for our campaign, through deeper engagement with parents held back by the current system, and with employers and advocacy organisations who share our vision. Our recent experiences of campaigning on this issue suggest that there are now plenty out there. 


We'll be building our campaign over the coming weeks, and we look forward to speaking to as many of you as possible. Do please feel free to share your thoughts via this form or by emailing Jeremy at j.davies@fatherhoodinstitute.org. Sign up for our newsletters and follow us on social media to make sure you keep up with the campaign.


 

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