THIS week I had my first 10 minute rule bill in Parliament. Once or twice a week, MPs who are not members of the Government have the chance to propose new laws or offer amendments to current ones.
It’s hard to decide what to do. Day to day I hear about so many injustices, I spend a lot of my time on education, so the underfunding of early years education and budget cuts to our classrooms are never far from my mind.
However, for a 10 minute rule bill to make its way into law, it’s going to require support from a lot of MPs and, more often than not, the Government.
Therefore I’ve picked something that I’ve been campaigning on for months, and something that I hope complements current legislation.
I’m calling on the Government to allow freelancers and the self-employed access to shared parental leave and pay.
Shared Parental Pay is a relatively new employment right. It came into existence in April 2015. The idea was to allow each parent to take blocks of leave to be with their new born baby, therefore moving away from the expectation that the mother would take primary responsibility in caring for the child. It also recognised that many mothers felt they had to take extended periods off on maternity leave, which can damage their career and future earning potential.
So far, so good. It was a positive step by the Conservative-led coalition. However, the warning signs that take-up might be poor were there from day one. The most important factor in childcare arrangements for the majority of parents is family finances.
Where many employers will have enhanced maternity pay schemes for employees, for most employees such schemes don’t exist for shared parental leave. This means many families would be worse off if they took advantage of it.
And that isn’t all. Culture change in workplaces doesn’t happen overnight, it will take time for it to become ‘normal’ for dad or a partner to take an extended period off to look after their child.
This has led to a take up of the scheme that could be as low as two per cent of those eligible.
My belief is that the self-employed can blaze a trail in leading that culture change. A survey conducted by Parental Pay Equality found over 70 per cent of freelancers, or those with freelance partners, would use the scheme if it was available to them in the future. Contrast that to the two per cent who take it now.
The self-employed can help us get to a place where it’s assumed that partners can, or indeed, should shoulder a significant amount of the childcare.
The mechanism needed to make shared parental pay available to freelancers and the self-employed, while not increasing the cost on the public purse, is an incredibly simple one.
New mothers who work freelance are already entitled to Maternity Allowance of £140.98 per week for 39 weeks if they have paid Class 2 National Insurance for at least 13 of the 66 weeks before their baby is due. Maternity Allowance is only paid to mothers, this bill would enable partners to decide who receives it. So a mother can take a block, and then when she wants to re-enter the workplace, her partner can take leave while the family still receives the Maternity Allowance.
It brings freedom of choice into the family. It also allows freelance dads to share the joy of childcare. It seems wrong to me that while conventional employment supports partners taking time off, freelancers are locked out.
This bill would also help end the expectation that childcare responsibility lies with mum – an expectation that often remains throughout childhood. Consider your own workplaces; who usually stays off with poorly children or dashes off early when the childcare falls through?
More often than not, it’s mum.
So as simple as my bill is, it has important consequences for the culture in our workplaces. Not to mention rolling back the outdated idea that new employment laws should be created only with those on conventional contracts in mind. The rise of the gig economy and self-employment (at least 4.7 million Brits are self-employed according to the ONS), means we need to have their interests in mind.
The change would affect a large part of our working population – nine per cent of women and 16 per cent of men aren’t eligible for Shared Parental Pay because they’re self-employed, while 24,000 self-employed mothers already claim Maternity Allowance and would benefit.
Finally, we’re in a period where the gender pay gap and equality are rightfully high on the agenda. We know that extended maternity leave can have a negative impact on the career and earnings of mothers. So given the – albeit slow – progress made for conventional employees, why are we still tolerating a system for freelancers where mums can feel trapped into staying off on leave, so not to lose Maternity Allowance?
I’m offering the Government an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to gender equality, closing the pay gap and giving the self-employed a fair deal at work. Let’s hope they take it.
Tracy Brabin is Labour MP for Batley & Spen.