Changes in maternity/paternity processes
And indeed, the concept took a step closer to reality last month after the government unveiled its proposals on the practical implementation of shared parenting leave.
But the plans, which are designed to give parents more choice over how they undertake childcare during their baby’s early years, will result in employers having to make a number of changes to how they manage their maternity and paternity processes.
Top of the list will be the administrative aspects of this new right. But the good news is that there is still plenty of time to plan ahead as the new regime is not scheduled to come into force until 2015.
Moreover, this boost to employee rights has garnered cross-industry support: both the TUC and the CBI were in favour of the developments in principle.
And despite its aim of cutting red tape, the government considers the issue to be sufficiently significant to merit introducing a reasonably complex new system, which is expected to create additional burdens for business. This implies that that the pay-off for UK plc at large should be worth it. But will it be in practice?
In reality, the new system will only make shared parenting a reality if fathers are prepared to take time off. The level and duration of leave payments are, therefore, likely to play a pivotal role in levels of demand.
The original proposals contained a four-week 'reserved period' for fathers that would be paid for, in addition to their existing two weeks of paternity pay. But this suggestion appears to have been shelved due to the additional cost burden for employers.
The deputy prime minister summarised the government’s approach as being one of incremental rather than immediate change – the financial realities of economic austerity clearly and inevitably influenced it.
Lessons from Sweden
But what might be expected by way of further incremental change? There is evidence from other countries to suggest that, over time, the state can play an important part in shaping parental choice.
We only have to look at Scandinavia to see what results can be achieved – provided the necessary infrastructure and incentives are put in place. In this context, it is worth reflecting on aspects of Sweden's approach.
Sweden offers a different perspective. It has operated shared parental leave since 1974, accompanied by generous state payments given to parents who decide how their leave is taken.
As a result, it has now become routine for fathers to take three months off in the first year of their child's life (although they can obviously take more should they wish).
The level of state payments could be said both to facilitate shared leave from a financial perspective and, perhaps just as importantly, signal the wider societal value placed upon a shared approach for those couples who wish to go down this route.
Commentators suggest that this stance has led to a cultural change in Sweden, with shared parenting becoming the norm. And there are a number of benefits that may be associated with this approach.
Women who want to can more readily re-join the labour market and are not trapped by what has been referred to as the 'motherhood penalty' of taking time off to look after young children.
An on-going partnership approach to sharing childcare responsibilities also appears to be reinforced, which might otherwise prevent women returning to work in a variety of roles.
Fathers are able to spend more quality time bonding with their children. They have a phrase for it in Sweden – "latte papas" – since so many men attend toddler groups or catch up with other parents over coffee while looking after their children.
Whether the UK would be ready for such a model poses an interesting question, however. At a time of austerity, it is unlikely that the government would be prepared to contemplate a regime that hinges on increased state spending. After all, the cost of statutory maternity pay is paid by the state, not employers.
The UK proposals
As for the proposed new system in the UK, here are some details:
- Apart from the first two weeks of maternity leave, which must be taken by the mother, the remaining 50 weeks can be divided between the parents according to what suits them
- Fathers will have the right to attend two antenatal appointments as unpaid absences
- There will be no change in the overall amount of payment made during the leave period – the payment period of 39 weeks will remain and parents will simply be able to choose how it is taken
- It will be possible for both parents to take leave together - referred to as ‘concurrent leave’ - or to take it in short blocks and swap it over to each other in line with work projects or issues in their personal life
- The minimum block of time that can be taken is one week
- Employers will not be required to check the situation with their employee’s spouse or partner's employer in relation to leave requests.
It is obviously the administrative aspect of the new regime that will be of greatest concern to employers, however. Adequate notice of a staff member’s intentions will be essential in order to plan effectively for a leave period that is not taken in one continuous block.
Although we don't currently know the finer details of how this is supposed to work in practice, the government has said that employers will be able to veto requests for leave taken in short blocks of time, if it is not appropriate for the business. So the default position will be for leave to be taken in one continuous block.
- While the government is keen that employers and employees discuss how leave should be taken in order to come to an agreement, the situation does present a number of challenges. For instance:
- If an employee does want to divide their leave up into several blocks, it will lead to complications with maternity cover
- Male paternity cover could also be an issue to consider in future. Although currently men can take up to 26 weeks off as APL (Additional Paternity Leave), the uptake of this right has to date been low
- How should employers deal with a request to take leave that they suspect is false? Since both parents can be off concurrently, and one employer is not supposed to speak to another, how will it be possible to verify this situation?
- Will employers who operate enhanced maternity schemes offer the same to men who wish to take extended parental leave?
- If occupational schemes are enhanced to cater to both men and women, it could increase uptake levels for shared parental leave, however. A shift in earning power could be another driver. For instance, last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that one in five women were now the family breadwinners.
So it would seem to make more financial sense for women in this situation to return to work, while their husbands/partners take time off. And it is this dynamic that may ultimately end up being a more powerful influence in driving change than the level of state payments.
What is inevitable, however, is that a cultural change of this magnitude will take time. So I think it's safe to say that it will take a good few years before our cafes start being overrun by “latte daddies”.