UK: The Government’s New Plans For Shared ‘Maternity’ Leave And Flexible Working

Last Updated: 21 November 2012
Article by Chris Holme and Corinna Harris

Nick Clegg has announced the Government's new plans for shared maternity leave, to be called 'flexible parental leave', some new family friendly rights and the extension of the right to request flexible working. However, the introduction of the new leave arrangements has now been delayed until 2015.

The new flexible parental leave will enable fathers to take leave, and claim statutory flexible parental pay, for most of their child's first year if they want to, provided the mother returns to work. The new plans are intended to enable people to work more flexibly, to encourage a culture of shared parenting responsibilities and to create greater equality for working mothers.

The new rights

For employers, the most significant plans in the Government's response to the Modern Workplaces consultations are:

Flexible parental leave

  • Maternity leave: the default position is that all employed women have 52 weeks' maternity leave
  • Paternity leave: fathers are still entitled to two weeks' paternity leave and pay
    • Shared parental leave: The first two weeks' leave after the birth are compulsory maternity leave
    • The remaining 50 weeks of leave can be shared between the mother and the biological father/ the mother's partner
    • Leave can be taken concurrently or together, but can't exceed the total amount of leave that the parents are entitled to - for example: The mother could take the first nine months, and the father the remaining three months
    • The mother could return to work for a period in the middle of the leave year, with the father taking care of the child until she takes more leave
    • The parents could both stay at home together with the child for up to 6 months
    • Leave must be taken in minimum blocks of one week
    • The parents must agree their individual pattern of leave with their employer
    • If the proposed leave pattern can't be agreed between the employer and employee, the leave defaults to a single block from the date specified by the employee
    • Adoption leave: parents who adopt will be eligible for the new flexible parental leave on equal terms
  • Statutory flexible parental pay: the same qualifying requirements will apply that currently apply to statutory maternity and paternity pay
  • Qualifying criteria: each parent must meet the qualifying criteria for leave and pay in their own right, which are intended to mirror the existing qualifying criteria. The Government is also considering making arrangements for working parents who don't meet the qualifying requirements to receive statutory payments, but they wouldn't be introduced before 2018
  • Implementation: further consultation, on the details of how the new flexible parental leave system will work, will be launched in the New Year. The new leave system will be introduced in 2015.

Ante-natal appointments

  • From 2015, men will be entitled to take unpaid leave to attend two ante-natal appointments

Unpaid parental leave

  • Increased leave: in March 2013, leave will be increased from 13 to 18 weeks, to comply with the revised EU Parental Leave Directive
  • Child age limit: from 2015, parents can take up to 18 weeks' unpaid parental leave for each child under 18

Flexible working requests

  • Extended right: the right to request flexible working will apply to all employees with 26 weeks' continuous employment - currently only parents with a child under 17, or a disabled child under 18, or carers of some adults can make a request
  • Procedure for requests: the current statutory flexible working requests procedure will be abolished, and replaced with a duty to deal with requests in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable period of time
    • Acas statutory code of practice and guidance: these will provide support and guidance to employers on: The meaning of 'reasonable' in the context of the time within which to consider a request
    • How the existing business reasons for refusing a request can help an employer in handling competing requests
    • How to handle requests for temporary changes to working patterns - although employees can still only make one request within a 12 month period
    • Implementation: consultation on the code of practice will take place in 2013, and the new flexible working request system will be implemented in 2014.

The impact of the changes

It seems unlikely that the new flexible parental leave will have a significant impact on British workplace culture, in the short term at least, because:

  • For the majority of families, where the father is the main earner, they won't be in a position to share a significant part of this leave
  • The Swedish flexible parental leave system clearly shows that it was only when financial incentives were introduced that there was a change in tradition and workplace culture to fathers taking leave
  • There hasn't been a significant uptake in additional paternity leave which has been available to fathers for over 18 months

For many employers the key issues will be how the system actually works in practice, and adjusting to the new system. Undoubtedly, it will be most difficult for small, private employers to adapt to a flexible system. The main headaches the new system is likely to cause for employers may well be the admin involved in calculating pay and leave entitlements during flexible leave periods, arranging staff to cover absence during flexible leave, and dealing with more flexible working requests. The new plans also raise other issues, such as what employers should pay fathers on leave where their female employees are entitled to enhanced maternity pay.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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