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HMRC shared parental leave figures confirm take-up still low

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The first 'true' data on SPL take-up suggests more must be done to raise awareness and support father's leave, says Working Families' Sarah Jackson

Figures hailed as the first true picture of shared parental leave (SPL) take-up have been released, confirming low participation.

The HMRC data, obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by law firm EMW, showed just 3,000 new parents took advantage of the system in the first three months of 2016. This compares with the approximately 52,000 fathers and 155,000 mothers taking paternity and maternity leave in an equivalent time period in 2013/14.

The figures for quarter one of 2016 are the first ‘true’ figures available on SPL, (which was introduced in April 2015) because previous figures included additional statutory paternity pay (now phased out).

EMW stated that the data raised the question of how much demand exists for SPL. “While enabling parents to share childcare more equally is a positive move, policymakers also need to think carefully about what impact measures like this will really have – both on those it is meant to benefit, and their employers who will have to manage a more complex system,” said Jon Taylor, principal at EMW.

“There may be other more effective ways to help businesses provide family-friendly policies, such as tax breaks for childcare provision,” he added.

Taylor stated though that the figures also reflect low awareness among employees around SPL, and a persisting stigma around flexible working and paternity leave – both factors employers must work to address.

Sarah Jackson, CEO of work/life balance charity Working Families, told HR magazine these were the factors behind low take-up of SPL, which would inevitably take time to bed in, rather than lack of demand for SPL or this representing a flawed approach from government.

Employers have a really important role, particularly in creating workplace cultures that support fathers’ leave,” she said. “Half of organisations are not enhancing their shared parental pay, which could discourage couples from using SPL – especially if the father is the higher earner. We need a drive to improve understanding of the scheme.

“Parents that use our legal advice service often struggle to make sense of their entitlements and report that their employers lack understanding of how SPL works. Particular groups such as self-employed mothers face complicated interactions.”

Jackson added that the next step for the government should be introducing an independent period of paid parental leave for fathers, rather perhaps than extending SPL to grandparents, as currently planned.

“The government is considering extending SPL to grandparents, making it inevitably more complicated and undermining what the scheme set out to do: encourage more fathers to take on a caring role,” she said. “Instead the government should consider making SPL a day one right in line with maternity leave, and create a simple way to offer shared leave on an affordable part-time basis.”