Richard Branson has hit the headlines again with a new paternity leave policy which claims to be the most generous offering for employees in Great Britain.
Under the new scheme, men who have been with the company for four years or more will be entitled to a year’s paternity leave on full pay. Those men who have been with Virgin for two years or less will receive a quarter of their salary.
By contrast, the basic legal minimum fathers are entitled to is two weeks’ paid paternity leave as long as they have worked for that employer for 26 weeks before the expected week of childbirth (or placement for adoption).
Further leave for dads came under consideration in the run up to the 2010 General Election, when both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos mentioned plans to create more flexibility for parents on taking leave at the birth or adoption of a child. The previous Labour government introduced Additional Paternity Leave in April 2011.
Earlier this year, the Government implemented the Shared Parental Leave scheme giving the option for parents to share the leave and pay which mothers were traditionally entitled to as maternity leave and maternity pay.
Under these rules, mothers must take the first two weeks of maternity leave (four weeks for those working in factory type environments) but the remainder of the leave may be taken by either parent subject to the total leave period of 52 weeks and the total payment period of 39 weeks (six weeks at 90 per cent of average earnings and the remainder at a flat rate provided criteria are met).
With employer agreement, parents may even take a period of leave, return to work while the other parent takes leave and then take further leave.
We can all understand the theory that modern families should be able to decide which parent wants to take time off to care for a new baby or that both parents should have equal opportunity to do so.
Dads have the chance to care for their baby or adopted child and also, importantly, traditional stigmas around employing or promoting women in their twenties and thirties who may want to have children are challenged as their careers may not be ‘disrupted’ by lengthy periods away from work.
However, the reality has been that there seems to be little appetite from fathers to take up the offering. TUC statistics on the Labour government’s additional paternity leave scheme suggest that less than 1 per cent of fathers took up that offer, with rates of pay and lack of flexibility being cited as the reasons.
As the new shared parental leave scheme only took effect from April this year, it is too soon to assess whether the limited extra pay and additional flexibility will increase interest or whether there are more fundamental cultural issues that put fathers off from taking further leave (or make mothers unwilling to relinquish leave to fathers?).
Branson’s proposals certainly sound very generous and may remove some of the obstacles that would otherwise stop fathers from taking leave but we cannot say whether this will be enough to change fathers’ views on taking time out of the workplace.
Branson is reported as citing his motivation in announcing the policy as taking care of employees so “they will take care of the business in return”. Cynically, it’s a great soundbite and keeps the Virgin brand up there in the forward-thinking, people-centric stakes with the likes of Google (who, like Virgin, also offer some employees unlimited holidays).
According to The Independent, the new paternity leave policy only actually extends to the Virgin Management division of the company, which has fewer than 140 employees, so the actual cost to Branson of this policy has probably already been more than paid for by the positive publicity and brand kudos that the media attention surrounding this announcement has generated.
Laura Kearsley is a partner specialising in employment law at Nelsons Solicitors
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