Commission calls for radical approach to parental leave

Parental leave must give mothers and fathers real choice

30 March 2009

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is today launching proposals for a fundamental change in parental leave, to give mothers and fathers greater support in bringing up children.

The three-step, carefully-costed plan will increase the take up of the present provision by those missing out – namely fathers and lower income parents. The Commission says that the changes will help tackle the gender pay-gap, bring greater support and social benefits to parents and children, and show modern ways of working are better for the economy.

In a speech to mark the launch of its report, Working Better, Nicola Brewer, the Commission's Chief Executive, argued that over the past decade increases in maternity leave have brought welcome support for mothers.

But without also looking at more leave for fathers in their own right and leave parents can share between them according to what best fits their personal circumstances, we risk entrenching the career penalty women pay at work, and the parenting penalty men pay at home.

The report also reveals findings from a major survey of 4,500 parents. They show high levels of demand for new flexible working practices to support families from all income groups – including new ways of allowing fathers to spend more time with their children.

The Commission's ten-year strategy will result in leave being divided more equally between parents. The report also calls for higher levels of maternity and paternity pay to increase uptake, particularly among men, lone parents and lower income groups. The £5.3bn costs of the new plan would be introduced incrementally, ending with a new model of leave in 2020. In time, that model would provide:

For fathers:

  • the first two weeks’ paternity leave at the birth of their child would be retained, but at 90 per cent pay
  • four months of dedicated 'parental leave' which can be taken after the mother's six months of maternity leave comes to an end. This right would be available until their child's fifth birthday
  • at least eight weeks of that leave should be supported at 90 per cent of pay. 

For mothers:

  • The first 26 weeks would remain dedicated maternity leave for mothers. The number of weeks paid at 90 per cent pay would be increased from six to 26 weeks
  • After six months, mothers would get the same 'parental leave' arrangements as fathers.

For both:

  • Four months of parental leave that either parent can take, at least eight weeks at 90 percent of pay.

For low income parents:

  • the research found that fathers in families with an income of up to £15,000 are much less likely (46 per cent) to take paternity leave than those in the highest income group (59 per cent)
  • 48 per cent of mothers who are lone parents are far more likely to take a short period of maternity leave, compared to 31 per cent of mothers in a relationship
  • the Commission's recommendations would increase the rates of pay for both mothers and fathers, ensuring more low income and single parents can afford to take leave.

The report includes analysis by financial consultants, indicating that the proposals would cost an additional £5.26bn above and beyond the £2.07bn the UK already spends on parental leave policies. The Commission believes the changes in leave could be introduced step-by-step in an affordable manner. The first phase would cost £1.38 billion.

The total cost is equivalent to 0.53 per cent of GDP. This is lower than the 0.84 per cent of GDP Britain spends on child benefit and the 0.95 per cent spent on child tax credit - two other benefits with similar policy objectives.

The Commission also today unveiled the results of its 'state of the nation' survey of 4,500 parents by YouGov, asking them about their attitudes to work, care and family life. It finds that modern mothers and fathers defy the Fifties stereotype of stay-at-home mums and breadwinner dads. They aspire to approach parenting as a team effort, shared between mothers, fathers, partners and other carers.

But Britain's parental leave policies, coupled with old fashioned ways of working in some workplaces, are pushing parents into difficult compromises - and the reality of their arrangements do not always match their aspirations for caring and working in the 21st century.

The polling finds there is widespread support for a modern approach to parental leave and flexible working that enables parents to exercise real choice:

  • Nearly a third of parents feel that they spend too little time with their children - 54 per cent of fathers with children under one stated that they felt they spend too little time with their children
  • Over half (53 per cent) say their current arrangements are ‘by necessity’ rather than choice
  • 47 per cent of parents disagreed when asked whether parents have a choice whether to spend time with their children or at work. 31 per cent agreed
  • 76 per cent of women say they have primary responsibility for their children
  • 60 per cent of parents think fathers should spend more time with their children. Of the 45 per cent of fathers who haven’t taken up current paternity leave arrangements, 88 per cent said they would have liked to, but nearly half said they could not afford to
  • Almost 70 per cent of fathers who took paternity leave say it improved the quality of family life, and 56 per cent say it led to them taking a greater role in caring for their children
  • Only a quarter of women believe that mothers have the same access to good jobs, with 40 per cent of men agreeing
  • Flexibility at work is important or very important to 88 per cent of women and 66 per cent of men
  • 48 per cent of fathers, compared with 36 per cent of mothers, stated that flexible working is not available to them
  • Half of parents think paternity leave should be longer; and a third want it to be better paid
  • Half of men and 54 per cent of women support the option to transfer maternity leave allowance to fathers, and nearly 60 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women support the proposal for four extra weeks leave for fathers.

Turning to flexibility at work, parents reveal that many flexible approaches to work are already working for them, suggesting Britain is reaching a tipping point. However, there is still a need to capitalize on the momentum and promote further change:

  • According to the YouGov survey of parents, 38 per cent have some form of flexibility – and 18 per cent have the opportunity but don’t currently take it
  • 59 per cent of parents achieved their flexibility through informal changes offered with the job or agreed with their employer, without having to make a formal request
  • the most common reason for working flexibly was that the flexible arrangement were already in place when people started their jobs - more so for men (40 per cent) than for women (31 per cent)

The report concludes that although Britain appears on paper to have weaker flexible work legislation than other countries - a right to ‘request’ vs. a right to ‘have’ - in practice Britain has a wider range of alternative ways of working than elsewhere in Europe.

This is often driven by enlightened employers offering jobs more flexibly in the first place, informal arrangements and the right to request. These include not just part-time work, but compressed hours, term-time working to fit with school holidays and job sharing.

But the Commission also found that parents' awareness of the right to request is low (less than half of parents are aware of the right to request flexible working) and there is a growing divide between workplaces where flexible working is 'business as usual' and workplaces where progress has been limited.

According to the report, the challenge now is to keep up the momentum to extend the business benefits of flexible working in the face of a recession; extend awareness of flexible working to the workplaces that have not yet embraced change; and ensure that those working flexibly at work are not pushed into a ghetto of low pay and poor prospects.

While the Commission doesn't believe the 'right to request' should become a 'right to have', the Commission is calling for:

  • the right to request flexible working should be extended to everyone, not just parents
  • the 26 week employment eligibility criteria for requesting flexible hours should be repealed
  • the introduction of a formal right to request a return to full-time work after a previous change in working hours
  • the investment in training and guidance for managers to introduce flexibility in the workplace, as well as further efforts to promote flexible working

Nicola Brewer, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

'Our report indicates some British employers are ahead of the legislation in terms of adopting modern ways of working and we're heading in the right direction on flexibility. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum in the face of the economic down turn, and extend the benefits to fit us for the upturn.

'But when it comes to modern approaches to parental leave, we may need to try a different route. Today we are proposing one of the most radical changes in our approach to parental leave in a decade. We have spoken to parents, to employers, to unions and to leading academic experts in the field, and we believe that the Working Better report lays out a road-map to 2020 which will put Britain ahead of the curve in terms of modern working practices.

'Flexibility is a tool many British businesses use to unlock talent. Changing the way we approach parental leave could be one way of tackling the gender pay gap. By supporting men to be good fathers as well as good employees, it would also help children do better at school and equips them for the world of work. And it would help families on lower incomes to balance work and the rest of their lives.”

Ends

For more information contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission Media Office on 02031170255, out of hours 07767 272818.

You can download a copy of the Working Better report here.

Notes to Editors

Potential timeline for implementation of a three staged policy transformation by 2020. The £5.26bn in additional costs above and beyond the £2.07 the UK already spends on parental leave policies would also be phased in over three years: £1.38 billion for stage one, £1.11 billion for stage two, and £2.76 for stage three.

Introduce small scale change to increase take-up by low earners Address cultural bias towards mothers as primary carer Introduce a more holistic approach to parental leave, with equal access for both parents
  • Expand eligibility for Statutory Maternity Pay/Statutory Paternity Pay so that parents who have not been employed continuously with their employer for 26 weeks are eligible
  • Improve Statutory Maternity Pay: increase the period at 90per cent pay from 6 weeks to 18 weeks
  • Improve Statutory Paternity Pay from flat rate to 90per cent of pay
  • Introduce Paternity Allowance as an equivalent benefit to Maternity Allowance so that fathers have equal access to financial compensation for their leave  
  • Reduce period of Statutory Maternity Pay from 39 weeks to 26 weeks and transfer the remaining mother’s leave to more flexible ‘parental leave’
  • Introduce up to 52 weeks’ parental leave, including dedicated, non-transferable ‘mummy months’ and ‘daddy months’
  • 8 weeks each, half at 90per cent pay and half at a flat rate, with a ‘use it or lose it’ condition to encourage take-up
  • a further 8 weeks as ‘family months’ to be taken by either parent on the same terms
  • an additional 28 weeks unpaid
  • Extend higher rate Statutory Maternity Pay to 26 weeks at 90per cent pay
  • Increase the length of dedicated non-transferable ‘mummy months’ and ‘daddy months’ to 4 months (17.3 weeks) each (the remaining 4 months to be taken by either parent)
  • Increase the level of pay for parental leave to 26 weeks at 90per cent pay (the rest unpaid) or all 52 weeks at 50per cent pay

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain. It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission will enforce equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourage compliance with the Human Rights Act. It will also give advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.