The MP who gave us Shared Parental Leave says there is still work to be done.
In 2015 Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, steered legislation through parliament that heralded the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). Thanks to her, most employed dads now have the opportunity to spend significant amounts of time with their new families after the birth of a child.
It should be a game changing piece of legislation, and for many dads it is. At DaddiLife we have written about SPL on a number of occasions, but the difference between what SPL gives working dads today and what the situation was before its introduction is worth repeating. SPL allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of parental leave and up to 37 weeks of statutory pay. Prior to 2015, dads had the right to one or two weeks of paternity leave, and that’s it. It’s no wonder that Jo is proud of the achievement.
“My proudest moment from my time in the Coalition Government was introducing Shared Parental Leave,” Jo tells DaddiLife. “It was the most important thing I wanted to deliver because it’s good for families, it’s good for children and it’s also good for equality in the workplace. For me it feels like a win-win-win policy.”
It was the most important thing I wanted to deliver because it’s good for families, it’s good for children and it’s also good for equality in the workplace
SPL: everyone benefits
She continues: “There’s so much research which shows that children benefit from dads being involved, and this is global research. Men who are involved fathers are happier, more productive at work and they even live longer. There’s also a lot of research which shows that, for children, having that input is really helpful for their development.”
Dads are better off, and so are children. Perhaps more surprisingly, women are too. Jo says that 54,000 women a year still lose their jobs in the UK because of pregnancy discrimination: “Moving to a situation when both parents are much more involved in looking after the children is one that is going to herald much more equality in the workplace, and it means that men and women will be working together for much more flexible, supportive workplaces.”
Listening to Jo Swinson, it’s obvious that SPL is a no-brainer for dads, children, mums, and even employers. But the best evidence we have suggests that perhaps only two percent or so of eligible dads took SPL last year. In its present form, SPL at least gives families more options than they had before, but the financial penalty that families can face when dads take extended leave puts many of them off.
Jo admits the legislation is far from perfect. She was part of a coalition government, and compromise was necessary to get the legislation passed her Conservative partners. “We didn’t get everything we wanted,” she says, and admits there is considerable room for improvement.
“These things always take time to bed in but obviously we need to do more,” she says. “There’s a couple of big things that need to be done. One is to sort out the finances. Many employers will give extra money, over and above the statutory rate for maternity pay, but haven’t yet changed their policies to give the same additional funding for Shared Parental Pay.”
This is certainly crucial. Where companies have topped up Shared Parental Pay, take-up has been much higher than average. Jo also believes that a cultural shift needs to happen, so that men don’t worry that taking SPL “will be a black mark against them” in terms of their careers.
Long hours culture
Research supports her conclusions. Families are worried by SPL’s financial consequences. Men are worried that employers will regard them as less committed to their careers if they take extended parental leave. The long hours culture that still exists in many workplaces makes it more difficult for dads to fully exploit their right to SPL.
Still, SPL is a large stride in the right direction, and though take-up is currently low that is often the case with new social legislation. And Jo is not stopping there. She is currently working on legislation that would force firms to publicise their parental pay and parental leave policies and one that would expand SPL to more parents. Research has shown that many contract staff, for example, fall through the gaps in current SPL law.
The UK still lags behind the best in Europe when it comes to dads taking time off to look after their newborn children, but thanks to Jo Swinson the gap has narrowed. If it were up to her, we would be a world beater in parental rights, with happier dads and healthier families as a result.