Take-up of statutory paid paternity leave: the Daddy of all bogus statistics

“Only a third of eligible fathers taking paternity leave” (People Management)

“Just a third of eligible fathers take paternity leave” (HR News)

“Only one in three fathers take paternity leave, research suggests” (Daily Mail)

“Just a third of eligible new fathers took paternity leave in the last year” (HR Magazine)

“Only a third of eligible new fathers are taking paternity leave” (Jersey Evening Post)

If these headlines – all from July this year – feel a bit familiar to you, that’s because you have seen them before. You saw them last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Because, as previously noted on this blog, they are all based on a press release that law firm EMW regurgitates every summer. Admittedly, EMW do throw in a bit of variation: one year it’s ‘Only one third of fathers are taking paternity leave!’, and the next year it’s ‘Two thirds of fathers are not taking paternity leave!’ Clever!

So, for example, here are the Independent and HR News in the summer of 2019, reporting that “fewer than [a] third of new fathers take paternity leave”. And here are the Telegraph and HR News in the summer of 2020, reporting that “two thirds of new fathers are still not taking paternity leave”. How great it must feel to be a ‘journalist’ at HR News.

Things got a little more interesting in 2021, when the impact of the Covid19 pandemic and the £65bn furlough scheme allowed EMW to rebrand the same set of raw HMRC data, obtained by an annual Freedom of Information request, as “paternity leave take-up drops to lowest level in 10 years”. This secured headlines in the Independent, and in the specialist journals Personnel Today and People Management. The ‘journalists’ at HR News must have been on furlough, or something.

However, with new fathers no longer able to choose between taking one or two weeks of statutory paternity leave on £150 per week or continuing on furlough on 80-100% of their normal wages, the number of statutory paternity pay claimants has bounced back, and this summer EMW reverted to “Only a third of eligible new fathers are taking paternity leave”. Which, as well as securing the headlines above, seemingly led the Fatherhood Institute to note that “latest figures suggest that only a third of fathers take paternity leave”.

Which is a little odd, because in a 2017 report the Fatherhood Institute noted that “large surveys covering a range of employment sectors consistently show between two-thirds and three-quarters of eligible fathers taking some statutory paternity leave, with 55% taking at least [sic] their full ten days”.

So, what is the rate of take-up of statutory paid paternity leave? Well, to answer that question, we need two bits of information: the number of new fathers who take statutory paid paternity leave (the numerator): and the number of new fathers who are eligible to take statutory paid paternity leave (the denominator).

The numerator is easy: HMRC has routinely provided the data in response to numerous Freedom of Information requests by the law firm EMW and others, including yours truly. [Update: The data is now publicly available in this Answer to a Parliamentary Question.] Here’s a table:

(It’s worth noting that these figures include both ‘fathers’ and a small number of same-sex partners of the birth mother. In 2021/22, for example, 2,200 (1.1%) of the 204,200 claimants were female. However, this detail has never troubled EMW or any of the ‘journalists’ who have typed up EMW’s press releases since 2019, so I am parking it too. Furthermore, the figures include a degree of double counting: HMRC has confirmed that “where a given spell of [statutory paternity pay] extends across [the boundary between] two years, the claimant will be included in both years’ figures”. However, this double counting matters more when we consider the number of SMP claimants – see below.)

The denominator, however, is tricky, as no one knows how many new fathers are eligible to take statutory paid paternity leave each year [and, since I posted this blog, the new BEIS minister, Kevin Hollinrake, has confirmed that the Government has not made any estimate of the number]. To arrive at their take-up rate of ‘one third’, EMW have assumed that the number of eligible new fathers is the same as the number of new mothers who start on statutory paid maternity leave, which – based on the raw data provided to them by HMRC – EMW have taken as 654,000 in 2018/19, 649,000 in 2019/20, 652,000 in 2020/21, and 636,000 in 2021/22.

As previously noted on this blog, there are several reasons why this assumption is not necessarily valid, but it is certainly one of several approaches to estimating the number of fathers who are eligible for statutory paternity leave that are available to us. Though we need to add to the figures in the previous paragraph at least some of the 50-60,000 new mothers who start on Maternity Allowance each year, as the HMRC figures used by EMW are only for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP).

However, the raw HMRC figures for SMP used by EMW do not show the number of women who started on SMP in that year. Because – as explained previously on this blog – the raw HMRC figures include a significant amount of double counting.

Furthermore, if our starting point is the partners of women who start on statutory paid maternity leave (on either Maternity Allowance or SMP), then we have to allow for the fact that a significant proportion of those fathers are not eligible for statutory paid paternity leave. In some cases, this is because the father is not in employment (in recent years, the employment rate in the 25-34 and 35-49 age groups has been about 85%), and in others it is because the father is working, but has not worked for their current employer for long enough (at least 26 continuous weeks) or is self-employed.

The Fatherhood Institute cites a 2017 analysis by the TUC that it says indicates that “two out of five working fathers [i.e. 40%] are ineligible either because they are self-employed or because they have not worked for their employer for long enough”. In fact, the TUC itself suggested that 25% – not 40% – of working fathers are ineligible.

And, if we (i) adjust the raw HMRC data on SMP starts for double counting; (ii) add Maternity Allowance starts; (iii) apply the male employment rate (85%); and (iv) apply the TUC’s ineligibility rate of 25%, we get a chart showing ‘take-up of statutory paid paternity leave among eligible fathers’ that looks like this:

Now, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest there is something wrong here. I don’t think take-up of statutory paid paternity leave among eligible fathers averages 92% (after excluding the atypical year 2020/21). One possibility is that the TUC’s suggestion that 25% of working fathers are ineligible for statutory paid paternity leave is wide of the mark. And another is that the number of women who start on statutory paid maternity leave is not as good a starting point for estimating take-up of statutory paid paternity leave among eligible fathers as EMW and everyone who cites their figures thinks it is. Yes, I’m looking at you, HR News.

An alternative proxy for the number of new fathers who are eligible for statutory paid paternity leave might be the number of new fathers who are eligible for shared parental leave. We don’t know the latter number either, but we do at least have an official Government estimate of it (see p29), which is a maximum of 285,000 per year. There are a number of reasons why the number of new fathers who are eligible for statutory paid paternity leave is likely to be different to the number who are eligible for shared parental leave, but using that 285,000 as a proxy does give us a somewhat less ridiculous-looking chart (note the slight change of scale on the right-hand side, made for aesthetic reasons):

Yes, that’s an annual average (excluding the atypical 2020/21) of at least 74% (it will be higher, if the actual number of eligible fathers is less than the maximum of 285,000 estimated by the Government). And 74% is a bit more than ‘one third’.

But if you don’t like that approach, I have others! One would be to start with the number of live births, reduce that by the proportion of new mothers who are single parents (BEIS has used 16%, but this may be out of date), apply the male employment rate (85%), and then apply the TUC’s ineligibility rate of 25%. This gives us a chart that looks like this (again, note the slight change of scale on the right hand side of the chart):

Excluding the atypical 2020/21, that’s an annual average of 53%. And there’s good news! Thanks to the falling number of live births, the trend is upwards: in 2021/22, by this measure, take-up was 56%. Which is quite a bit less than 74%, obviously. But still quite a bit more than ‘one third’.

If I had to put money on it, I’d say that take-up of statutory paid paternity leave among eligible fathers is probably somewhere between 53% and 74%, and most likely in the region of 60%. Which (a) is closer to the findings of those large surveys cited by the Fatherhood Institute; and (b) is not bad, when you consider the pitiful rate at which such statutory leave is paid (currently, just £156.66 per week, equivalent to less than half of the National Minimum Wage). Given the ‘health and safety’ purpose of such leave – to enable the father or other second parent to support the birth mother at and immediately after the birth – there is a very strong case for it to be paid at 90% of average weekly earnings, like the first six weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay, rather than at the flat rate.

That would help push take-up among eligible fathers towards 100%. But we also need to shrink that 25% of working new fathers (or whatever the proportion is) who are not even eligible for statutory paid paternity leave.

In December 2019, the Conservative general election manifesto committed the now lamented Boris Johnson-led Government to “look at ways to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave”. However, three years on, there is no evidence of ministers or officials having since done any such ‘looking’, and certainly no policy proposals have been forthcoming. Maybe in due course.

On the other hand, in its September 2021 Green Paper on employment rights, the Labour Party committed the next Labour government to “extending statutory maternity and paternity leave”, which I am reliably informed means ‘extending eligibility’ to those who currently miss out on such entitlements, including by making them ‘Day One’ rights.

The way things are going, that next Labour government could be along quite soon. But let’s at least make 2023 the year when everyone throws EMW’s annual press release about take-up of paternity leave straight in the bin. Because it’s pretty clear that, whatever it may be, the rate of take-up of statutory paid paternity leave is not “only a third”.

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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1 Response to Take-up of statutory paid paternity leave: the Daddy of all bogus statistics

  1. Pingback: Workers’ rights: Back to the future of December 2019? | Labour Pains

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