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Leave policies review: getting serious about more equal parenting

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 September 2022

darkside-550 / Pixabay

Alison Koslowski, Peter Moss and Margaret O’Brien.

In 2015, the UK government introduced Shared Parental Leave (SPL), a measure to encourage more equal parenting. It enabled mothers to transfer up to 50 of their 52 weeks of Maternity leave, and some of the associated benefit, to fathers.

A government evaluation began in 2018, but has yet to deliver. It is clear, though, that SPL has not worked. A minister, in 2017, told the House of Commons’ Women & Equalities Committee that she ‘would regard anything over 20% [take up] as very encouraging’. A new analysis by Maternity Action comes up with the discouraging news that in 2021/22, ‘take-up among an assumed 285,000 eligible fathers was just 2.8%…just 8,100 fathers’. Just 0.66% of total public expenditure on Maternity and Paternity leave went on SPL.

Experience from countries with more successful leave policies provides pointers to what has gone wrong. That experience is available in the recently published 18th annual international review on leave policies, produced by a network of experts led by Professor Alison Koslowski, director
of UCL’s Thomas Coram Research Unit. The review brings together details of parenting leaves and other support for employed parents in 49 countries, across Europe and beyond, providing a unique source of information on policies, their take-up, the relationship between leave policies and early childhood services, and recent changes.

It will come as no surprise that the most successful policies for promoting equal parenting are found in Nordic countries. In Iceland, 87% of fathers took leave in 2019, averaging 3 months each. In Norway, fathers take a third of the 46 to 56 weeks of leave available. While in Sweden, nearly all fathers take leave, averaging 39 days in 2021. Whilst leave-taking is still far from equal the gap is slowly closing; for Swedish children born in 2019, 19.4% of couples equally shared leave during the child’s first 24 months.

Why do policies work so much better in these Nordic countries than in the UK? First, because their policy attention is focused on actual Parental leave, where both parents have an equal right to take leave. By contrast, the UK’s ‘Shared Parental leave’ is a bogus term, not Parental leave at all, but enabling the mother to transfer some of her Maternity leave should she choose. This transferability makes it, as Maternity Action points out, ‘extremely complex, and as a result it is very poorly understood by both employers and parents’, and worse, the ‘complex eligibility provisions depend on the employment status and earnings of two parents, reducing the likelihood that both meet the eligibility criteria’.

Second, the Nordic focus on actual Parental leave means that fathers have a personal entitlement to leave that is non-transferable – so, use it or lose it! – and mothers do not have to give up their personal leave entitlement to fathers, as with SPL. Third, leave in all three Nordic countries is well paid, ranging from 78% to 100% of earnings, though with a cap on the maximum payment. By contrast, fathers in the UK using SPL mostly get a low flat-rate payment or no payment at all.

Fourth, and less tangible but equally important, the Nordic countries have been serious about gender equality for many years. Men’s role in the family was part of Sweden’s political debate on gender equality back in the 1970s, with Prime Minister Olof Palme telling the 1972 Social Democratic Party Conference that ‘even if we build countless day care centres and the finest housing environments, we will still not liberate women if the work at home is not divided between men and women in a more sensible way’. Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce Parental leave, in 1974. The UK then did not even have Maternity leave, and political support for gender equality has remained fitful and low priority.

What to do? The starting point has to be a recognition that the UK’s current policies don’t work and are, in fact, a mess. We have the longest period of Maternity leave among OECD member states, and one of the lowest levels of payment – only six weeks are well paid. We have a ‘Shared Parental leave’ that is not Parental leave at all, and is clearly a flop. We do have Parental leave – 18 weeks per parent – but it is unpaid, only four weeks can be taken per year, and it is little known about and little used. Last but not least, we have no regular reliable statistics on take-up of any of our leave measures.

So perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board, to admit we’ve got a badly designed product. Many countries, such as Germany, Korea and Japan have already taken this radical step. A thoroughgoing review is called for, starting with deciding what leave is for and then creating a new design fit for purpose and capable of delivering what we want to achieve. That review should be informed by comparative work, looking at what other countries have done and achieved, as a provocation to reflection and debate. Last but not least, the UK needs to decide whether as a society it is serious about gender equality, which applies not only to women in employment but to men in the home, and therefore about more equal parenting.

The 18th international annual review of leave policies can be accessed (free of charge) here.  There is a webinar to mark the publication of the review on September 29 at 4pm; register for free here.  


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