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Shared Parental Leave

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 13 September 2018

The Minister for Women and Equalities takes her responsibilities to the House very seriously and regrets that she cannot be present this morning because she is attending an important Cabinet meeting on EU exit. If there are any urgent matters, she will of course be available to discuss them with colleagues this afternoon.

Earlier this year, the Government Equalities Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ran an award-winning £1.5 million communications campaign to promote the take-up of shared parental leave. That was supported by revised guidance and case studies, making it easier for parents to understand and access the scheme.

The introduction of shared parental leave was a momentous step forward for families and for parents in work, with families no longer being held back by outdated stereotypes. Unfortunately, however, official figures show that only 2% of eligible parents have so far taken up the scheme. Many fathers say that they are worried about taking leave because of a perceived negative effect on their careers. What are the Government doing to encourage cultural change to help men to feel that they can take leave, to encourage companies to do more to bring men’s leave pay in line with maternity pay, and to make companies publicise parental leave and pay policies that help to reduce discrimination?

The hon. Lady has hit on the point that this is about not just businesses, but cultural change. That is why we are building the evidence base to understand what works best in encouraging a parent to take up shared parental leave. There are 285,000 parents or couples who can access this scheme across the country, and we encourage them to do so. We are also funding a research programme, which I will disclose more about in response to the first topical question, that will deliver evidence-based tools for employers on what works in closing their gender pay gaps and addressing their employees’ parenting responsibilities.

No awareness campaign on shared parental leave, however welcome, can lead to a significant increase in uptake while structural issues—the fact that men still, on the whole, earn more than women, for example—are making it really hard for families to make this choice. What will the Government do to follow international best practice and make parental leave more accessible and affordable?

Again, we are conscious that this is not just a matter for businesses; it is about cultural change as well. That is why our evidence-based programme will, we hope, bring real results. We look constantly at what other countries are doing to encourage parents to share their parenting responsibilities while maintaining their place in work, because we know that work helps women through financial independence. We want to do all that we can to help parents to maintain their careers while, of course, bringing up their children in a loving family environment.

Just as women should have equal opportunities to work, men should have equal opportunities to be active parents, but they face many barriers to doing so. Will my hon. Friend assure me that she and the Government will be keeping a close eye on their shared parental leave policy to make sure that it achieves its ends?

Very much so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does a great deal of work on gender issues. Before making any changes to shared parental leave and pay schemes, it is important to evaluate the situation, and we will be doing that this year. We will look carefully at what the evidence tells us, and also learn from other countries, before committing to a particular course of action.

Take-up of shared parental leave has been reported to be as low as 2%, and the low rate of shared parental pay is often cited as a reason for that low take-up. Does the Minister agree that if we are serious about tackling the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination, we need to introduce properly paid, stand-alone statutory paternity leave?

As I said, we have to look carefully at the repercussions of any changes to shared parental leave. For example, we want to help self-employed mothers in this space. If they qualify for maternity allowance, they are allowed to share parental leave and pay with an employed father or partner. We are not ruling out providing further support for working parents. We very much agree with the principle of equalising benefits for the self-employed. However, as part of our response to the Taylor review of modern employment practices, it is important that we consider making changes to this area only after careful thought and consideration.

Many colleagues have highlighted their concern about take-up being just over 1% and I must push the Government further. Will the Minister spell out what exactly this Government will do to ensure that taking up the scheme is a real option for parents?

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to her role. I am sure that working with her across the Chamber in the coming months will be a pleasure.

As I said, I am going to make an exciting announcement in response to the first topical question about our detailed programme looking not just at shared parental leave, but at other gender equality issues in the workplace. This Government are committed to leading the world in this space. As part of that, we will evaluate how shared parental leave is working, and get the message out that someone who is a working parent should ask their employer whether they are able to take shared parental leave.