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