Georgina Fuller discusses the pros and cons of shared parental leave
The government’s announcement last month that shared parental leave will be officially introduced from April 2015 has triggered a mixed response from new and expectant fathers. The proposals, which allow mothers and fathers to share parental leave between them for 50 weeks (in addition to the current statutory two weeks paternity leave) will allow dads to play a more hands-on role.
The reforms will also extend the parents’ rights to request flexible working. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a father of three, said we needed to ‘challenge’ the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the one that stays at home. “Many fathers want that option too. That is why we’re introducing shared parental leave, to allow couples to make that decision jointly ensuring all career options remain open to women after pregnancy. There shouldn’t be a one-size fits all approach – that’s not how families are set up. This is good for families, good for business and good for our economy.”
But are the reforms really financially viable for employers and how many new dads will actually be able to afford to take it up? Stephen Gray, IT and marketing director at Signam Ltd manufacturing firm, says: “As a family member of a family owned SME, I would not take it due to financial reasons and from a company point of view it would become uneconomical to replace me due to the fact that in SME's, management tend to wear multiple hats and do different roles.”
In order for the reforms to work financially, employers will have to have more help and support from the government, says Gray. “I’m a firm believer that one member of the family should be at home during the first three years and this can be either the mother or father. However, if it’s going to work for business then more financial support has to be made available for companies to allow full pay or pay at a slightly reduced rate. Without this industry will suffer, especially the lowly SME.” Under the new guidelines, new parents will be entitled to return to the same job provided they take no more than six months leave. Parents taking more than six months may return to a similar role but not necessarily the same job.
Steve Kelley, a primary school teacher at Cannon Park Primary School, says he would take up shared parental leave if it was financially viable and if he could guarantee it wasn’t going to jeopardise his career prospects. “I think it would have helped our situation when our second child was born because my wife runs her own business so needed to get back to work quicker than me. It would have meant that we didn't have to send our youngest son to nursery so young and saved on the very expensive fees.”
Some new dads, however, have welcomed the new reforms. Sam Drinkwater, neighbourhood/regeneration officer at the Network Stadium Housing Association, says: “I think it’s revolutionary and might just afford families and society equality in the truest sense of the word.”
Men sharing the responsibility of raising a baby in the first year of its life would shake up the female dominated culture of coffee shops, Mums Net and NCT classes which are all primarily geared toward mothers, says Drinkwater. “It's not about men doing a better job; it’s about men doing the job differently. Imagine the empathy and understanding new dads would have for the stresses, the joys, the monotony and passion that go hand in hand with raising an infant,” he notes.
James Beeley, a physiotherapist at Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent NHS Partnership Trust, is also a fan. “I think it's a great idea – especially in families where the women are the higher paid of the couple. Sure, it's a bit of a nightmare for employers to work out between two companies, but I know so many dads who would have loved more time on paternity leave. The total amount of leave between the two parents is still the same. Some companies employing mostly men will lose out a bit, but those employing women will probably benefit from it.”
Time will tell how well the reforms will be received when they are introduced in 2015 and how many new dads will actually make use of the shared parental leave. In the meantime, the government has asked Acas to produce a non-statutory guide to best practise for employers, which will provide practical advice and examples of how shared parental leave will work. This will be published alongside the final guidelines early next year.