Until last year, taking paid time off work to look after a new baby rested very much on the mother’s shoulders. But since the introduction of shared parental leave (SPL) in April 2015, families now have the option to split the childcare during their baby’s first year.
So what exactly is shared parental leave? Who is eligible? And is this really the catalyst for a new age of family equality?
How does it work?
Previously, men were only entitled to two weeks of paternity leave, compared to a woman’s 52 weeks. Under the new legislation, employed mums will continue to be entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, including 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance (if eligible) but after the first two weeks of compulsory maternity leave, they can choose to share the remaining 50 weeks of leave with their partner.
This can be taken doubled up or at different times - with the flexibility to take it in up to three blocks of at least a week each. For instance, both of you could choose to take leave together during those early daunting weeks when neither of you has a clue what the hell is going on.
Or, if one of you has a big work project slap bang in the middle of the year, you can go back to work, make some important decisions, then return to the world of naps, nappies and nursery rhymes when the job is done.
In the first two weeks partners can still take two weeks’ paternity leave after the birth and SPL will begin after this.
What are the benefits of SPL?
The aim of shared parental leave is to address the current gender imbalance: to help women to progress in their careers and enable men to take a more hands-on role at home. Mums now have more choice about when they return to work and fathers have got the opportunity to bond with their children during those crucial early months of development.
This also means that mothers, as well as fathers, will be able to maintain stronger links to the workplace during the first year of their child’s life, making it easier for women to juggle motherhood with a successful career.
Whether or not this is paving the way for a new generation of stay-at-home dads, keeping the home fires burning while mum climbs the career ladder remains to be seen.
Who is eligible?
The rights apply to employed parents living in mainland Britain, including those who are adopting, same-sex couples, co-habiting couples, and couples bringing up a child together even if the baby is from a previous relationship.
But if you are hoping to apply for the leave and have recently changed jobs you’ll need to check your dates. You need to have been employed for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the child’s due date (or match date for adopted children).
If you’re still not sure, you can check your eligibility on the Government website.
If you meet the requirements, it’s your right, so your employer can’t refuse you. But you will need to give them at least eight weeks’ notice so it’s worth working out a plan with your partner as soon as possible before approaching your employer.
What’s the pay?
Shared parental leave is paid at the rate of £139.58 a week, or 90% of average weekly earnings – whichever is lower. Only 37 out of the 50 weeks are paid though, although it is worth speaking to your employer to find out if they offer any advanced packages.
What’s the catch?
Unfortunately, SPL doesn’t apply to the many families in which the mother isn’t in employment, as mothers who don’t work don’t have a right to maternity leave or pay that they can share. Analysis carried out by the TUC found that two in five working dads with a child under one will be ineligible, mainly for this reason.
Another issue is that many mothers receive full pay during maternity leave so unless partners are able to persuade their employer to do the same, many might not feel it worth their while. This could be one of the reasons why figures earlier this year showed that a low number of men have opted to use the scheme in the year since its inception.