Matthew Potter: Should the UK follow Finland’s lead with equal parental leave?

Finland’s new government recently introduced legislation seeking to provide a level playing field for working parents. In light of growing calls for gender equality, the UK government is now also facing pressures to evaluate current laws and consider whether changes are required to encourage working fathers to take leave.

Employees in the UK have statutory entitlement to leave following pregnancy or adoption. Maternity leave provides women with up to 52 weeks following the estimated week of childbirth, of which 39 are paid and 13 unpaid. Paternity leave provides partners with up to two consecutive weeks of leave within 56 days of the birth or adoption of a child. Parental and adoption leave allows employees with more than one year of service up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave per child up to the 18th birthday of the child.

Shared parental leave allows a mother to curtail her maternity leave and share up to 50 weeks, and up to 37 weeks of pay, when responsibility for the child is shared, subject to qualifying criteria. In the UK, the mother cannot share the first two weeks with their partner, who likewise cannot share the two weeks of paternity leave with the mother. Shared parental leave can also be taken at the same time by both parents. It can be taken in intervals but is subject to approval by the employer and must be taken in multiples of complete weeks. It also cannot be taken if the partner is unemployed or self-employed.

The constraints in the process as detailed above may explain in part why uptake remains low, with government figures suggesting that less than 1% of those eligible are using shared parental leave.

The Finnish scheme provides parity between mother and partner following the birth of a child, with the aim of increasing the number of men engaging in childcare responsibilities. Leave can be taken piecemeal, and the 4.2 months of leave in Finland is shared equally.

Introduction of a similar scheme in the UK might at first instance find resistance from employers, who will be conscious of additional costs and administrative burdens. Equally, the lack of an equivalent to compulsory maternity leave could be treated with suspicion by those who worry that mothers will be forced back into work before they have physically convalesced.

Although no change to shared parental leave is expected in the UK, employers should remain aware that there is a push for greater engagement by fathers in childcare responsibilities. They should also be alive to the potential benefits to their businesses, including the improvement on gender pay gap reporting, the encouragement of staff retention through advertising the additional benefit, and the other gains to be seen from gender equality within the workforce.

Employers should watch this space, not only for changes in legislation, but also societal pressures for greater engagement by fathers in childcare responsibilities.

Matthew Potter is an employment law partner at Howes Percival