How does the UK’s support for working parents compare with other countries?


Need to know:

  • The less support for working parents the state provides, the more benefits employers might consider offering to staff.
  • Practical support measures that employers offer to working parents in the UK include childcare vouchers, workplace nurseries, flexible-working arrangements and access to networks and counselling.
  • While other countries may offer different statutory support, childcare vouchers are not as widely offered as in the UK.

One of the many considerations for working parents is how to juggle their career and working hours with a blossoming family life. Ben Black, director and founder at My Family Care, says: “There’s no distinction between work and family now like there used to be 30 years ago. People used to go to work or people used to stay at home and look after the family; the two were completely different.”

But how does the UK’s approach to support for working parents compare to provision in other countries?

Do statutory rights offer enough support?

With incremental changes in statutory support appearing over the past few years, UK maternity leave now consists of 52 weeks in total. For the first six weeks, the minimum a woman will be paid is 90% of her average earnings with no pay ceiling, while the following 33 weeks are paid at a flat minimum rate of £139.58 a week and the remaining 13 weeks are unpaid.

However, Dr Alison Koslowski, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Edinburgh, says: “£139.58 is not very much if you think about how that compares to the minimum wage: it’s at least half the minimum wage so it’s not very generous. As a result, a lot of employers top it up.”

UK maternity pay may be at the lower end of the spectrum, according to the 11th International review on leave policies and related research 2015, published by the International Network on Leave Policies and Research in June 2015, however, there are seven countries in the report that do not have a statutory paid maternity leave entitlement. Instead, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Sweden offer paid parental leave. In contrast, the US makes no guarantee of paid provision nationally for women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Sweden takes pride in being incredibly family-friendly when it comes to supporting working parents. This is evident in the country’s parental leave policies, which see parents have a total of 480 paid days off, with 90 days allocated specifically to each parent. The days cannot be transferred between the two parents, further encouraging fathers to take leave rather than lose their entitlement. In addition, Sweden offers one parent an additional 10 days off in connection to the birth, which is increased to 20 additional days if the parents have had twins. Adoptive parents get the same allocation as birth parents, while single parents are allowed the entire 480 days.

Statutory support plays a key role in how involved employers are with own benefits offering for working parents and carers. According to Creating longer, more fulfilling working lives: employer practice in five European countries, published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in May 2016, Denmark provides a well-developed and generous statutory support, meaning that employers do not have to include this in their benefits programmes. Rachel Suff, public policy advisor, employment relations at the CIPD, says: “Through the different welfare model, the state takes responsibility for both ends of the caring spectrum to a much greater extent for children and eldercare.”

Due to these differences, for example, Denmark is not really comparable to the UK in this sense, although the support provided, whether this be statutory or employers, also depends on frameworks in place, adds Suff. For example, the CIPD study found that France takes a very legislative approach to employment while in the UK results indicated a regulated labour market.

In turn, this affects how employers can offer support to carers. Suff adds: “It’s much more about encouraging employers to be proactive and realise that if they don’t put these measures in place, they are likely to lose people from the workforce because there is a significant majority of people leaving because they can’t juggle different demands.”

Practical support

Workplace nurseries and crèches are practical avenues of support that can help working parents. Paul Quartly, head of business development at Bright Horizons, says: “There are very few things that an employer can do that will have more value for a working parent than to set up a workplace nursery. When an employer offers a workplace nursery, the response from employees is huge in terms of levels of engagement, levels of loyalty, and also in terms of affordability.”

In some countries, such as Canada, they are not the norm. Nora Spinks, chief executive officer at the Vanier Institute of the Family, says: “A lot of [Canadian] workplaces can’t get licensed on site for the facility and operations. Within the UK, regulations are a little bit different so it’s easier.”

The influence of city bombings in North America, such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma bombing, which impacted buildings containing workplace nurseries, may also play a part in steering some employers away from offering these on site, says Spinks.

Childcare vouchers are one of the most popular ways in the UK for employers to assist working parents, giving employees the opportunity to pay for a proportion of their childcare fees on a tax and national insurance-free basis. Jo Dalby, finance director at Busy Bees, says: “Not all employers offer childcare vouchers, which is ridiculous because employers also save money.”

In other countries, such as Canada, however, such schemes look very different. “We don’t have the same kind of industry here,” says Spinks. “We don’t have those kinds of chains or network of services that are national. We do have programmes [such as] Kids in Company, which [is] employer-supported childcare but not the same kind of voucher programme. If an employer were to give a voucher in Canada, it would be a taxable benefit. In the UK, it’s considered pre-tax,” she explains.

Another factor influencing Canadian support for working parents is the concept of universality, with childcare-focused unions and communities taking a stance against both vouchers and workplace nurseries. Spinks says: “Every child should have access to high-quality pre-school care and it shouldn’t be dependent on who [an employee] works for. So employers [that] provide these vouchers or special access to childcare services infringe on the concept of universality.”

However, Canadian employers do support both men and women financially when it comes to maternity and parental leave, with the majority of employers offering top-ups to add to statutory payments. This ensures that staff receive their full salary for the whole period of maternity or parental leave.

With different countries offering a variety of childcare and parental benefits, there are a number of lessons UK employers can take from overseas provision. In a nutshell, it is important for employers to be aware of the statutory benefits working parents can claim and to then be able to spot potential gaps that could cause employees stress with regards to caring for their family. If employers can adopt a proactive mindset when assisting working parents, this could lead to a reduction in work-related stress, as well as a better work-life balance for staff.

Rosalind Bragg- working parents columnViewpoint: Well-paid leave for all could drive paternity leave take-up

When women and men call our advice line, their big concern is money. Whether they are calling about redundancy, sick leave, health and safety, leave entitlements or pregnancy discrimination, their primary concern is how they are going to make ends meet. Babies cost money and moving onto maternity, paternity or shared parental pay means a substantial drop in income for most families.

We would like to see an increase in the flat rate of statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental pay and maternity allowance (currently set at £139.58). A payment equivalent to the minimum wage would be a useful starting point, and we could work towards wage replacement pay.

This is consistent with good practice in Europe. Germany pays the first 14 weeks of leave at full wage replacement, then 10 to 12 months at two-thirds of earnings. Even Poland, a significantly less wealthy country, offers 26 weeks at 100% of income followed by 26 weeks at 60%.

Increased pay will help promote greater equity in leave taking between men and women. International evidence is clear that increased take-up of leave by fathers is dependent on leave being well paid. One option is to give fathers a reserved period of well-paid leave, matching the first six weeks of statutory maternity pay.

We do not expect this approach to generate much change. If fathers only get a few weeks of well-paid leave, then they are likely to take just a few weeks of leave. But if all leave is well paid, then we have a realistic chance of shifting the current, inequitable patterns of leave taking between mothers and fathers.

Can we afford to increase maternity, paternity and shared parental pay? Between 2010 and 2014, the government axed the Health in Pregnancy Grant, restricted the Sure Start Maternity Grant to first babies, means-tested child benefit and reduced the real value of statutory maternity pay and statutory paternity pay. This reduced benefits and statutory payments to new parents by £1.5 billion per year. Perhaps some of these ‘savings’ could be redirected into better-paid leave.

Rosalind Bragg is director at Maternity Action

SackersSackers offers a range of support measures to working parents

Law firm Sackers has received external recognition for its dedication to forging a family-friendly work environment, scooping the Best for all stages of motherhood award at the Working Families Awards 2016. Using the statutory requirements as a base-level guideline when it comes to benefits and support, the firm has endeavoured to provide a range of options to help support and retain working mothers and fathers.

As well as enhanced maternity, paternity and shared parental leave, the organisation, which has around 100 employees, provides expectant staff with a resource pack with information on maternity policies, as well as practical details on how to manage pregnancy. There is also further information about giving birth, health and nutrition during pregnancy, childcare options and childcare vouchers. Julia Perrin, director at Sackers, says: “There’s a little book that we put in there that has top tips for working parents, which I think people find quite helpful.”

For lawyers at the firm, Sackers provides an external coaching programme that supports mothers-to-be at every phase of pregnancy. This is supplemented with an internal mentoring scheme where new mums are paired with partners within the organisation who have been through maternity leave and returning to work themselves. “[The partners] can be a sounding board and provide support and guidance on things that they found helpful,” says Perrin.

As well as liaising with external networks, such as the City Fathers Network, Sackers also hosts webinars on every aspect of parenting life, covering topics such as choosing childcare, tackling working parent guilt, keeping children safe on the internet and how to choose secondary schools.

Flexible working is also a key initiative at Sackers, with 30% of employees utilising this arrangement to improve their work-life balance. This includes staff at senior levels.

Perrin adds: “I think it really boils down to recognising family life is important and it’s really about providing a working culture that allows people to juggle work and home. In the last five years, all of the lawyers who have taken maternity leave have come back to work, which is good.”