In Brief

Why are so few dads using new shared parental leave rights?

Finances, cultural attitudes and lack of awareness blamed as just one per cent of fathers take time off

Figures compiled by My Family Care have found that there has been very little take up by dads of new shared parental leave rights.

Under laws that came into effect last April, fathers in the UK can use as many as 50 of the 52 weeks of leave afforded to mothers after the birth of a child. Mothers must take two weeks off - or four for factory workers - but can swap the rest for shared leave, which can be taken flexibly by either of the parents.

The time can be taken in consecutive periods or concurrently, to allow parents to be with their new baby together. It can even be used in blocks throughout the course of the year. Pay is offered at the same statutory rates as maternity leave, something it was hoped would encourage more dads to take a more active role in early childcare.

But the new research, based on a survey of 1,000 parents at 200 employers, suggests just one per cent of fathers may be doing so – and offers three potential reasons why.

Pay rates

Shared parental leave being "financially unworkable" was one of the most commonly cited reasons for dads not taking advantage of the new rules, The Daily Telegraph says.

Both maternity and paternity leave qualify workers for up to 39 weeks of statutory pay of either £139.58 or 90 per cent of existing earnings, whichever is lower, although time off for mothers also includes an initial six-week period where the 90 per cent rate applies with no maximum. However, most white-collar workers will probably get more than these minimums under enhanced rates offered by their employers.

The problem is that while companies have to pay the same enhanced shared pay rate to men and women alike, they do not have to pay the same rate for shared parental leave in general as they do for enhanced maternity leave.

According the The Guardian, less than half of the employers surveyed offer the same contractual rate to those using the new flexible rules as to mothers under their pre-existing maternity policies, making it financially beneficial for the woman to continue to take all of the leave period.

Perception

Perhaps even more critically, a second reason for not using the new option – or rather, a theme running through a number of the reasons cited – was one of perception.

Dads said they feared taking a sizeable block of parental leave would be viewed negatively by their employer or that they did not want to take leave away from the mother. Moreover, more than half of the mums themselves said they did not want to share the leave.

To some extent, this probably highlights issues of cultural attitudes that the new laws will chip away at over time, but some campaigners reckon it is a flaw of the regime.

Tom Beardshaw, a paternity specialist with the Executive Coaching Consultancy, told the Telegraph: "At present, men can only take SPL if their partner loses it from her own allocation - and why would any new mother want to do this? Indeed, why would a new father want to take leave away from his partner?"

Instead, he called for both men and women to get "at least three months of properly paid leave each", saying that we "know from successful international models that when men and women are given the same entitlement to parental leave, they take it up in large numbers".

It's early days

It's probably also true to say that it's too early to say too much about a law that is designed to encourage a change in some pretty established attitudes. The Guardian says four in ten respondents had said their employers do not "encourage" taking shared leave – and a "lack of awareness" was among the most common response overall, adds the Telegraph.

In fact, Ben Black, the founder of the firm behind the study, cited some evidence that the new rules are a "fantastic step forward" that will see increased take up in the coming years.

"The study does also show that almost two thirds (63 per cent) of men who already have young children, and are considering having more, would choose to take shared parental leave in the future," he said.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "There are many factors that affect a couple's decision on how childcare should be managed and by whom. Take-up is likely to be higher in organisations that offer pay above the statutory minimum. We will evaluate the policy by 2018."

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