Employers need to consider arrangements for fathers, says Alison Coleman
Case study: Mouchel Parkman
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Among the raft of new measures outlined in the Work and Families Act 2006 are proposals to extend paid maternity leave and allow working fathers to take up a share of it.
This has provoked the usual mixed response, with the work-life balance lobby welcoming the idea, and industry leaders viewing it as yet another cost to business.
The Act, which comes into effect this month, extends the period of paid maternity leave to nine months. The additional proposals to extend paternity leave are still under debate, but are expected to be introduced by the end of this parliament. These measures will provide fathers with the entitlement to take up to three months paid paternity leave at a statutory rate, followed by three months unpaid leave but only if their child’s mother returns to work after six months’ maternity leave and before their full period of leave is up.
Although the new rights for fathers are not expected to be on the statute books for some time, employers are being urged to start thinking now about how to manage changes.
Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, says: "Initially, there will be a negative reaction from employers, similar to their reaction to the idea of flexible working. Their first concern is for the administrative costs that accompany any new legislation and, certainly for smaller firms, there does seem to be a disproportionate burden.
"However, a growing number will realise that by being flexible and allowing new fathers more time to get involved with the care of their children, they are less likely to lose staff and, when [employees] do return to work, they will be more motivated and therefore more productive."
But the real question is how many working fathers are likely to take advantage of their new rights? Danielle Kingdon, a partner at law firm Osborne Clarke, anticipates that few will do so, mainly for financial reasons.
"The current paternity leave entitlement of two weeks is paid at the rate of £106 [which has now risen to £112,75] per week, so those on a higher salary are going to lose out at a time when, with the extra costs of a new baby, their financial requirements will be considerably higher," she explains.
However Laura Williams, a senior researcher at think-tank The Work Foundation, believes it could benefit the high number of dual-income families, where women out earn their partners: "In many cases, it will make more sense financially for fathers to take a share of the extra leave."
Other factors to consider include the effect of taking longer paternity leave on pensions and other benefits. Although the government has yet to produce draft regulations on the detail, it is intended for those taking additional paternity leave and additional statutory paternity pay to be entitled to benefit from the terms of their contract (apart from those relating to remuneration), and so remain eligible for employee benefits, equivalent to a mother on ordinary maternity leave.
But many still anticipate a low take up of extended paternity leave, simply down to male pride.
"There is a stigma attached to taking paternity leave. In some sectors of industry, taking time off work to look after a new baby is not seen as very macho, and that will influence the take up," explains Kingdon.
This view is not shared by support groups such as Fathers Direct, a national information centre on fatherhood, which sees extended paternity leave as an important step towards giving parents real choice as to who looks after a baby.
According to policy adviser, Adrienne Burgess, however, it is an option that will never be fully exploited unless it is properly paid and placed on an equal footing with maternity leave. "There is a huge demand for fathers to be more involved with their children, and according to our own research, a growing number who would like to. But unless they can persuade their employer to pay them more, they will go on using their holidays for paternity leave, which they may well need at a later date," she explains.
She believes there is a more pressing need to establish a sense of gender equality in the UK’s approach to maternity and paternity leave, pointing to the lead taken by some Scandinavian countries, where a range of policies and initiatives have been introduced to actively encourage fathers to play a greater role in caring for their children.
These include the Daddy Month, a use-it-or-lose-it non-transferable element of leave that has substantially boosted take up by fathers in countries such as Norway. "More importantly, it has raised awareness of paternity leave and made it just as acceptable for fathers to take time off work to look after the baby as mothers," says Burgess.
All this makes for a daunting proposition for bosses concerned with staying on the right side of the law. But there are business benefits to be gained from the proposals. Shared leave, for example, could result in more post-natal women returning to work.
"Forward-thinking employers will already know that being flexible about maternity and paternity leave and allowing employees to return to work when they feel the time is right can be a highly-effective retention mechanism. And, at a time, when there are major skill shortages and an ongoing war for talent, that is a priority," says Thomson.
A more equal sharing of maternal and paternal leave entitlement will also remove any motive to discriminate against female job candidates of child-bearing age. "By creating gender equality around the issue of maternity and paternity leave, this legislation will effectively help to create a level playing field for women in the employment market," adds Thomson.
Social demographics aside, the more immediate concerns for employers will be the practicalities and the costs of managing the new patterns of shared leave.
Elizabeth Gardiner, a policy officer at Working Families, sees no reason for employers to be unduly worried. "The provisions for leave sharing are there in the [Act], but it is unlikely to be introduced for at least another year, when take up will initially be low, and slow to take off. If an employee does decide to apply for additional paternity leave, they will have already applied for statutory paternity leave, and their employer will have had plenty of time to plan for it," she says.
Following the introduction of statutory paternity leave and statutory paternity pay in April 2003, fathers have taken more leave around the birth of a child.
The proportion of fathers who took more than two weeks leave rose from 22% in 2002 to 36% in 2005, while the proportion taking five days or fewer fell from 39% to 25% over the same period.
Fathers in low-paid or lower-skilled jobs tended to take less time off around the birth of their child, as did those employed in the construction industry or in smaller workplaces, than those in more skilled jobs.
Among employed fathers who took time off after the birth of their child, a fifth did not use paternity leave, relying instead on annual or other forms of leave.
When asked for their views on the leave-sharing proposal contained in the Work and Families Act 2006, a quarter of mothers surveyed said they would have considered an option for leave sharing had it been available, while a third of fathers said they would have wanted to stay at home with their child while their partner went to work.
The proposal for leave sharing proved most popular among lower-paid fathers, with 39% of those earning less than £2,000 per month interested in transferring leave. Less than a quarter (22%) of fathers earning £3,000 or more per month, however, were interested in this type of leave.
Source: Maternity and paternity rights and benefits: survey of parents 2005, published by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in March 2006.
Case study: Mouchel Parkman
Mouchel Parkman has given paternity benefits some serious thought.
The professional support services provider to industries such as engineering, employs more than 6,000 staff, who are mostly male, at 80 offices across the UK. Nicky Matthews, HR business partner, says: "A lot of our employees are fathers, including those in management roles, so the organisation is fully aware of the value and importance of additional paternity leave." In addition to statutory paternity pay, fathers are offered two full days of paid paternity leave, a perk which the firm is looking to extend when the proposals for additional leave come into effect. However, it has yet to decide on the terms of its policy.
A significant number of fathers take their current two-week statutory leave, with some taking statutory paternity pay and others using annual leave. "It is difficult to anticipate what the take-up of additional leave will be. But we believe that offering flexibility and choice with extra benefits will pay dividends for employers in the long run," adds Matthews.