Why it's time to end discrimination against self-employed parents

Campaigners and MPs are calling on the government to ensure fairer rights for both self-employed parents, and for stay-at-home dads in general.

Heidi Vella
18 April 2019, 3.48pm

Self-employed mums are being unfairly penalised when starting a family - and so are dads who want to take parental leave, whether they are self-employed or employees. Moves are afoot to challenge the discrimination and it can’t come soon enough for many parents.

Around 4.8 million people, 15% of the UK workforce, are self-employed. Amongst women, self-employment has risen by 63% since 2008, according to The Association of Self-Employed People (IPSE).

Self-employed parents are afforded much less support in the first year of their child’s life than their employed counterparts, which may explain why self-employed women take only an average of 23 weeks maternity leave, according to a report by mortgage broker John Charcol.

Self-employed new mothers can claim Maternity Allowance, subject to certain minimum earnings requirements – but whilst employed women are entitled to 90% of their annual salary for the first six weeks, then £148.68 for the rest of the period (or more if the employer enhances it), self-employed women are only entitled to a maximum of £148.68 a week throughout their leave.

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Self-employed fathers miss out completely. Four years ago, the coalition government introduced Shared Parental Leave and Statutory Shared Parental Pay. Both entitle new parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them during the first year of a child’s life. Yet self-employed fathers do not qualify for Statutory Parental Leave or Shared Parental Pay.

Fathers who are employed are also discriminated against. Employers are required to offer Shared Parental Leave to fathers who have been employed by the company for a minimum period of time; however, they do not have to offer the same pay for fathers who take it up, as they do mothers taking maternity leave. This means an employed woman expecting a child will receive, as minimum, 90 percent of their pay for the first six weeks, but an expectant father at the same company may receive only £139.58 per week.

Research by Working Families revealed that only 32% of their surveyed organisations were enhancing Shared Parental Pay. It stands to reason that if a company is not enhancing Shared Parental Pay to match maternity pay it disincentives take-up which is extremely low in the UK.

Freelance concert pianist and mother-of-two, Clare Hammond, calculated that after having two daughters her family missed out on around £5,700 of maternity pay they could have claimed had she stayed at home during the first year of their children’s lives, rather than her freelance computer programmer husband.

“This is plain and simple gender discrimination,” says Hammond. “The only difference between my partner and I is our gender; if you have two self-employed men in a partnership can they not claim anything? And can two women in a partnership both make a claim?”

Hammond took only six weeks maternity leave with her first child and eight with her second. If she had stopped work for six months to a year, her career would have taken a significant hit, she says.

“I am a lone trader, I don’t have anyone to do the work when I am not there. Whereas my partner, being a software programmer, has much more work available that is better paid and more flexible,” she says.

A survey by Parental Pay Equality, a campaign created by freelance music engineer and mixer Olga Fitzroy in 2017, found only 20% of self-employed women interviewed said they were back to their pre-baby earnings by the time their child was two.

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP who was Employment Relations Minister when Shared Parental Leave was introduced in 2015, this month put forward a Private Members Bill to address some of Shared Parental Leave’s failings, including extending it to self-employed families.

Another prohibiting factor for self-employed mothers on maternity leave are the restrictions put on so-called ‘Keeping in Touch (KIT) days.’

Self-employed women can take 10 KIT days to do work without losing their maternity allowance. However, research by PPE found 80% of those surveyed find this amount insufficient to maintain their business over the 39-week period of maternity leave.

“It's just not realistic for anyone to maintain their business over nine months with just 10 working days in their arsenal, particularly when sending one email is technically classed as a day's work,” says mother-of-two Francesca Tortora, a freelance graphic designer and founder of Doing It for The Kids.

The current outdated Shared Parental Leave and Maternity Allowance rules hold back gender equality progression in the UK by placing the duty of childcare primarily on the mother. They also penalise mothers for being self-employed - a decision they may have taken to stay in work while also juggling a family.

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said it is currently evaluating the Shared Parental Leave and Pay Scheme and expect to report the findings later this year.

“We have been clear we are not ruling out providing further support for self-employed parents in the future, but this needs to be carefully considered within the wider context of tax, benefits and workers’ rights over the long-term,” they added.

The government had an opportunity to make changes in October 2018 through Labour MP Tracy Brabin’s #Selfieleave bill but the bill did not pass its second reading.

Let’s hope either via the government’s own review or Swinson’s bill, when it finally comes to its second reading in parliament, the unfair discrimination placed on self-employed parents and fathers is finally addressed.

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