09/04/2015 18:15 BST | Updated 09/06/2015 06:59 BST

The Dawn of Shared Parental Leave

This week sees shared parental leave come into effect in the UK. Parents can now choose to split their parental leave when they have a child. This modest, necessary and rather intuitive statement may sound simple but it has been long in coming. It replaces a system in which new mothers were eligible for 52 weeks of paid maternity leave and dads got only two. This imbalance belied parent's aspirations for their family lives. Most parents believe childcare should be shared equally between parents, and most dads seek to spend more than two weeks with their newborn.

So it's likely that last week's announcement from the Lib Dems will also be welcome news to many parents. They've pledged to extend statutory paternity leave from two weeks to six if re-elected. This follows a Labour announcement in February to increase it to four weeks (though they would offer higher paternity pay).

Better paternity leave isn't just a good idea (and one that IPPR has advocated for some time). It is key to increasing take up of shared parental leave in the longer term. Fathers who spend time with their children early on are more likely to continue to do so.

The UK is not at the vanguard of parental equality. The imbalance between mothers' and fathers' leave in the UK is among the highest in the OECD. But a rare benefit of lagging behind more forward-thinking nations is that we can wait to see what works (and shamelessly copy it). Look north to Scandinavia to see examples of similar reforms doing wonderful things for father's involvement with their newborns. Whatever policy choices we make about parental leave in the UK, take up is likely to be low at first. Take up of shared parental leave by fathers is expected to be between two and eight percent. Parental leave reforms are part of a long game and we'll have to wait to reap the benefits.

However, there are things we can do to speed up progress. Fathers are less likely to take time off if they works in small companies, are self-employed or low-earners. So any increase in leave for dads should make it easy for SMEs and self-employed people to access leave. Pay should also be set at a level that encourages, rather than discourages, dads from taking time off. Statutory paternity pay is currently capped at £138.18 per week, yet the first six weeks of maternity pay is at 90 per cent of average weekly wages. A significant minority of eligible fathers don't take their statutory entitlement, and of these half say it's because they can't afford it. In the short time, paternity pay should rise to equal maternity pay. In the longer term, both maternity and paternity pay need to be high enough to ensure that financial barriers don't keep parents from making real choices about childcare.

But making leave available and attractive to parents is only part of the battle. We also need to encourage and support fathers to spend more time at home. It can be difficult to go against social norms, particularly when it means going against the expectations of bosses, colleagues and friends. We also need to compliment equitable parental leave policies with greater support for mothers to go back to work if they want to. Shared parental leave opens up meaningful decisions for families - and parents need to be supported and encouraged to take them.