Shared Parental Leave: Someday will surely come

A few weeks ago, yet another year came to an end without the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) having concluded its marathon evaluation of the chronically failing Shared Parental Leave scheme.

Originally due to start in March 2017 and underway by late April 2018, the evaluation report has now been stuck in the bowels of BEIS for 45 months (some 1,350 days), despite the then business minister telling MPs in March 2019 that it would be published ‘later in 2019’, and the current business minister Paul Scully telling MPs in October 2020 that it would be published ‘later in 2020’.

And today, having told MPs in July last year that the evaluation report would be published ‘later in 2021’, Mr Scully revised that ETA to – you guessed it! – ‘later in 2022’.

It is hard for a lowly policy wonk to keep up with such fast-paced events, but – despite the evaluation evidently including “large scale, representative surveys of employers and parents, and a qualitative study of parents who have used the scheme” – the long-awaited evaluation report will most likely tell us little that we don’t already know.

We already know, for example, that those parents who do take Shared Parental Leave tend to regard the experience extremely positively, even if they gripe about the administrative complexity and ludicrously low rate of pay. And there is no shortage of anecdotal and survey evidence of the desire for more equal parenting on the part of both mothers and fathers. So, if the evaluation concludes that the SPL scheme has been a monumental failure, overall, it will struggle to blame this on a lack of demand from parents. As the Fawcett Society says, the demand is there.

And we do already know that the SPL scheme has been a monumental failure, overall, because we know that the number of eligible new fathers who have experienced the joys of taking Shared Parental Leave since 2015 is extremely small. According to raw data provided by HMRC in response to numerous Freedom of Information requests in recent years, just 12,600 people [sic] received statutory SPL pay in 2019/20, the fifth year of the SPL scheme. But HMRC has also confirmed both that this raw annual data is inflated by a degree of double counting, and that some 20% of the recipients are female (presumably either a lesbian partner of the birth mother, or the birth mother herself). And, if we adjust the raw data accordingly, to focus on the male recipients (i.e. on fathers), that extremely small number gets even smaller:

In September 2021, HMRC confirmed (in its response to FoI request FOI2021/20932) that, where a spell of SPL pay extends across the boundary between two financial years, the recipient is counted twice (once in each year); assuming the average duration of a spell of SPL pay to be 2 months, the raw data can be adjusted down by a factor of 5/6. And, on 1 February 2021, in its Answer to Parliamentary Question 146798, BEIS stated that HMRC’s raw data on SPL pay recipients “includes both mothers and fathers; however fathers, on average, make up over three-quarters of all recipients”.

Unfortunately, pending the evaluation report, there is a problem with using this (adjusted) HMRC data to estimate the rate of take-up of SPL among eligible fathers: we simply do not know how many eligible fathers there are each year. In 2013, in its impact assessment of the new policy (see Table 7 on p29), BEIS forecast the maximum number of eligible fathers to be 285,000 (a figure BEIS has never felt the need to revise). And using that figure as the denominator suggests a rate of take-up among the pool of eligible fathers of just 2.9% in 2019/20, well short of the Government’s stated target of 25%:

Assumes 285,000 eligible fathers each year. The drop in 2020/21 is almost certainly due to the impact of the Covid19 pandemic and associated economic lockdowns.

However, the actual number of eligible fathers is of course not fixed: it varies from year to year. And, more importantly, for all we know it may be quite different to 285,000. So, given that the 285,000 forecast was a maximum, it may be that the BEIS evaluation of the SPL scheme will come up with new, lower estimates of the actual number of eligible fathers in each year.

Conveniently for BEIS ministers, this would boost the rate of take-up among the pool of eligible fathers. But, as the following chart shows, in 2019/20 the number of eligible fathers would have to have been as low as 150,000 – barely more than half the maximum number forecast by BEIS in 2013 – for take-up among those eligible fathers to have been more than a still risible 5%.

A take-up rate among eligible fathers of even 5.6% is still well short of the Government’s stated target of 25%. So the evaluation report will most likely attempt to recycle the Coalition Government’s original, remarkably unambitious 2013 forecast – based on the findings of a telephone survey of parents conducted eight years previously, in 2005 – of 2-8% of eligible fathers. But the fact is that, four years later, in November 2017, the then business minister told the Women & Equalities Committee of MPs that the Government has a target of 25% of eligible fathers. And with good reason – a rate of take-up of just 2-8% among a (heavily) restricted pool of eligible fathers will not change the world.

Indeed, faced with that dismal official forecast, the response of the then ministers – yes, I’m looking at you, Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson – should have been to ask themselves quite why they were bothering to go to all the trouble of steering a major piece of legislation through Parliament (while disappointing their allies in the family rights sector and irritating the employer lobby).

Whatever, there is a downside for BEIS if its 45 months of analysis does conclude that the actual number of eligible fathers each year is as low as, say, 200,000. Because, from the outset, a major criticism of the SPL scheme and its complex eligibility rules has been that a substantial proportion of new fathers are not even eligible to take SPL. Every year, some 420,000 women start on statutory paid maternity leave (some 360,000 on SMP, and some 60,000 on Maternity Allowance – see below). And, broadly speaking (but see below), that means that, each year, there are some 420,000 new fathers who might want to access some of their partner’s statutory paid maternity leave under the SPL scheme. But 285,000 is just 68% of 420,000.

Indeed, according to ONS data, in 2018 there were 649,626 maternities in England & Wales (plus about another 60,000 in Scotland). Which means – again, broadly speaking – that, in total, there are more than 700,000 new fathers who might want to take some time off work to share the care of their newborn child in its first year of life. And 285,000 is just 41% of 700,000. But a new father can only access statutory Shared Parental Leave if his partner – that is, the child’s mother – qualifies for and starts on statutory paid maternity leave. Somehow, this made sense to Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson.

So, if the BEIS evaluation report ‘reveals’ the actual number of eligible fathers each year to be as low as 200,000, then it will also reveal the rather awkward fact that more than half of those 420,000 new fathers with a partner who qualifies for and starts on statutory paid maternity leave are not even eligible for SPL.

(OK, before you accuse me of being too heteronormative in my approach, the number of women in a lesbian couple who start on statutory paid maternity leave each year is small enough to disregard at this level of analysis. And the bottom line is that the SPL scheme needs to be judged by how many men – not how many lesbian women – take time off work under the scheme to share the care of the child that their partner has recently given birth to: lots of lesbian partners taking SPL to share the burden and joys of parenting won’t do very much to reduce the Gender Pay Gap.)

On the plus side, if you are a BEIS minister, this provides you with a potential solution to the problem of needing to be seen to ‘do something’ to address the monumental failure of the SPL scheme exposed by your evaluation report. With a lofty wave of your hand, you can say that your Government is going to ‘transform’ the scheme and level-up parenthood by – *checks notes* – tweaking the complex eligibility rules. And the necessary legislation will be introduced – *checks notes again* – just as soon as parliamentary time allows (or “in due course”). By which time (you hope), everyone will have moved on. Job done.

It goes without saying that, while extending eligibility to more new fathers is essential and would be very welcome, it wouldn’t ‘transform’ the SPL scheme, and it certainly wouldn’t level-up the challenging business of parenting a new child. If only 4% of 200,000 eligible fathers are using the SPL scheme now, then simply increasing the size of the pool of eligible fathers wouldn’t, by itself, increase that rate of take-up. And, as well as needing to widen eligibility among new fathers, we need take-up among eligible fathers to be much, much higher than 4% if we are to achieve a societal shift towards more equal parenting (the primary purpose of the SPL scheme). That is presumably why the Government has a target of 25%.

Indeed, rather than focus on take-up among the limited pool of eligible fathers, it is arguably more meaningful to use the same HMRC data on recipients of SPL pay, adjusted for double counting and gender, to generate figures for the proportion of new mothers who, having started on statutory paid maternity leave, use the SPL scheme to transfer some of that paid leave to the child’s father. For it is this proportion, rather than the rate of take-up among the (limited) pool of eligible fathers, that tells us most about the impact of the SPL scheme in driving a societal shift towards more equal parenting.

In 2019/20, for example, a total of some 418,000 new mothers started on statutory paid maternity leave (some 361,000 on SMP, and some 57,000 on Maternity Allowance, according to my reconciliation of the available – but conflicting – HMRC and DWP data). And, as the following chart shows, if 8,366 new fathers received SPL pay in 2019/20 (see the table above), that means 8,366 new mothers – just 2% of the 418,000 – transferred some of their paid maternity leave to the child’s father under the SPL scheme.

However, I am pretty confident we won’t see this chart (or anything like it) in the BEIS evaluation report. It seems far more likely that BEIS will simply ‘reveal’ the actual number of eligible fathers to be someway below the forecast maximum of 285,000, hail the thus inflated figures for take-up among this shrunken pool of eligible fathers as ‘broadly in line with our original forecast of 2-8%’, throw in some survey findings about how much dads love their time at home on SPL, and then do very little to reform the SPL scheme other than, perhaps, tweak the eligibility rules and have yet another promotional campaign. The Government may be led by a man with a passion for making babies, but there’s simply no evidence that he or anyone else in Whitehall has the balls to run with the kind of costly reform that would better enable parents who don’t live in an expensively refurbished Downing Street flat to share the labour and joys of caring for their new cherub.

So it is perhaps of more import how Angela Rayner, Justin Madders and others in the Labour Party respond to the evaluation report. In September last year, their otherwise hugely encouraging ‘green paper’ on employment rights was near silent on family-friendly rights, and on SPL all it said (see p10) was “a Labour Government would urgently review the failed Shared Parental Leave system, with reforms to incentivise sharing of leave”. And the last thing we need after a four-year, in-depth evaluation of the SPL scheme is yet another ‘review’ that would simply tell us (again) what we already know. But what about those ‘reforms to incentivise sharing of leave’?

That’s a question I’m going to leave for another post.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and for Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.
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4 Responses to Shared Parental Leave: Someday will surely come

  1. Pingback: Overdue: a Labour Party policy on equal parenting | Labour Pains

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