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SPL: A father's view

The arrival of our son Harry meant I was lucky enough to be one of the first fathers to take shared parental leave (SPL)

The idea of SPL is simple. Mothers can give up to 50 weeks of their 52 week maternity leave entitlement to the father for him to take as SPL. However the execution is lamentable: the new rules are unnecessarily complicated and are laid on top of an already complex maternity leave scheme.

To us, it sounded like a great idea. But the big question was financial. With the imminent expenses of parenthood, would one or both of us be paid? Of course, mothers who take statutory maternity leave get statutory maternity pay and the first six weeks are paid at 90% of pay. By contrast, statutory SPL pay is closer to £140 per week.

My then-employer generously agreed to match its enhanced maternity leave policy and so I was lucky enough to be paid in full.

Most employers who have chosen to match have either done so because they consider it the right thing to do or because of competitive pressure. This is usually a commercial decision but the risk of indirect sex discrimination claims from fathers who lose out is a live issue. These claims will turn on whether the differential treatment can be objectively justified.

For employers, matching involves substantial cost. This is made worse as a result of the statutory pay rules which make the cost to employers of providing full pay during SPL higher than for maternity leave. This is because an employer can recover most of the cost of maternity leave during the first six weeks from the national insurance fund. Employers who do decide to match will wish to do so in a way that encourages women to remain on maternity leave during the first six weeks so employers recoup this cost.

In the end, I had an amazing experience and I can wholeheartedly recommend. I found myself at ease with bottles and nappies and was the envy of the other new fathers in our NCT group who had to return to work after the traditional two week paternity leave.

On return to the office, I was viewed as a rather unlikely equality trailblazer and mused on the wider implications. In my late 30s, I am one of “Thatcher’s children” and am probably one of the first generations where the boys grew up as true equals to our female classmates. It has always puzzled me why the inequality of earlier generations persists quite so doggedly.

The reasons are undoubtedly many and complex. For some mothers, taking significant periods out of the workplace to have children may affect their career. It is also still the case that, for various reasons, mothers tend to bear a disproportionate responsibility for childcare once back at work. As fathers take advantage of SPL, hopefully career breaks will become normal and fathers more involved in childcare.

To make this happen employers must not only match their maternity pay but must actively encourage new fathers to take the time available to them. It is also hoped that over time the government will provide the same level of statutory pay to those on SPL as those on maternity leave.

I believe the gender equality debate will move on to a debate over the extent to which work is compatible with family. That is a debate in which the law does not currently engage in any meaningful way- the UK maintains its working time opt-out and discrimination law does not expressly protect parents. With time parents may look to age discrimination and human rights law to challenge some of our working practices. And that is a battle in which parents of both genders will be united.

Daniel Pollard recently joined GQ Employment Law as a partner