UK: Maternity And Parental Leave And Time Off For Dependants

Last Updated: 26 March 2001
Article by Paul Lambdin

New Regulations on maternity and parental leave and time off for dependants take effect on 15 December 1999. They are introduced under the "Fairness at Work" legislation embodied in the Employment Relations Act 1999.

Maternity Leave

  • Women will come within the scope of the new maternity provisions if their expected week of child birth (EWC) is during or after the week commencing 30 April 2000.
  • Ordinary maternity leave, as it is now called, is extended from 14 to 18 weeks.
  • Maternity leave of up to 29 weeks from the start of the actual week of child birth is now known as additional maternity leave and is available to a larger group. A woman needs only to have completed one year’s continuous service as at the start of the 11th week before the EWC instead of the existing 2 years. The first to qualify under the new rules will be those whose babies are due on 30 April 2000 and who have completed one year’s service by the week commencing 13 February 2000.
  • Some of the notification rules have been changed. Notification of pregnancy, the EWC and the planned date of starting ordinary maternity leave does not have to be in writing unless specifically requested by the employer. Within the final 21 days of the ordinary maternity leave period the employer may ask an employee, who is entitled to additional maternity leave, to say when the child was born and whether she intends to return to work at the end of the additional maternity leave period. The employer’s enquiry and the employee’s response must be in writing.
  • There is no requirement to give notice to exercise the right of return to work at the end of either form of maternity leave. If a woman wishes to return before the end of the maternity leave period (whether ordinary or additional), at least 21 days’ notice of the intended date of return must be given to the employer. Otherwise the employer can ensure that it has 21 days notice by postponing the return, but not to a date beyond the end of the 18 or 29 week period.
  • The contractual position of a woman during maternity leave is clarified. A woman remains subject to her contract of employment throughout ordinary and additional maternity leave. During ordinary leave she is not entitled to receive wages or salary but is entitled to the benefit of other contractual terms and conditions, eg accrual of pension rights under occupational scheme or private medical insurance or company car. During additional maternity leave she is not entitled to any contractual benefit, although she continues to be entitled to the benefit of any terms relating to compensation in the event of redundancy, notice of dismissal and the disciplinary or grievance procedures. She remains bound by any contractual obligations relating to notice periods or restricting the disclosure of confidential information, the acceptance of gifts or benefits or participation in competing businesses. The implied obligations of trust, confidence and good faith also continue.
  • Under the existing law, those returning from maternity leave of either type are entitled to return to the job in which they were employed before the leave commenced. The new rules allow employers to provide suitable and appropriate alternative jobs in some circumstances, provided that terms and conditions as to remuneration and other matters are no less favourable.

Parental Leave

  • The right to parental leave is given to those who become the parents of children born or adopted on or after 15 December 1999. Employees may be required to produce evidence of their acquisition of parental responsibility. The right may therefore apply more widely than just to biological parents.
  • Employees who have completed at least one year’s service before the birth or adoption takes place are entitled to take unpaid leave of up to 13 weeks per child. Leave must be taken by the time the child reaches the age of 5, except in the case of adopted children or children suffering from a serious disability.
  • Leave must normally be taken in minimum blocks of one week. Not more than 4 weeks leave relating to an individual child may be taken in any 12 month period.
  • Employees must give at least 21 days written notice of the proposed period of leave. The employer can postpone it for up to 6 months by giving notice if it believes that the operation of its business would be unduly disrupted by the proposed leave.
  • Postponement is not allowed where a father wishes to take leave immediately after a child is born or adopted provided that at least 21 days’ notice has been given before the expected week of child birth or the expected date of placement for adoption.
  • An employer may agree its own (no less favourable) notification scheme with employees via a "workforce agreement".
  • Rights and obligations under the employment contract during parental leave are equivalent to those applicable during additional maternity leave.
  • Employees may complain to an Employment Tribunal about unreasonable postponement of parental leave or attempts to prevent it being taken.

Time Off For Dependants

  • With effect from 15 December 1999 employees have the right to reasonable time off during working hours to provide assistance care or attention to a dependant. Such time off will be unpaid.
  • A dependant is a spouse, child, parent or other family member living in the same household. For some purposes the term can also cover a person who reasonably relies on the employee for assistance or care provision in the event of illness or injury.
  • The right to time off applies to certain defined domestic emergencies. These include cases where a dependant falls ill, is injured, gives birth, dies, has existing care arrangements terminated or disrupted or is involved in an incident at school.
  • The employee must normally tell the employer as soon as reasonably practicable why he is absent and how long he expects to be absent.
  • An employee can complain to an Employment Tribunal if time off is unreasonably refused.

The new rules confer statutory rights not to be subjected to any detriment or to be unfairly dismissed by reason of pregnancy, childbirth or taking maternity or parental leave or time off to care for dependants. The new rules reinforce and extend the protection available under existing unfair dismissal and sex discrimination legislation.

This information is necessarily brief and it is essential that professional advice is sought before any decision is taken

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