Parents will be able to share parental leave within the next two years when the relevant parts of the Children and Families Bill become law.
The Children and Families Bill, which is currently going through the House of Commons, includes a number of provisions designed to give parents greater flexibility on how they ‘mix and match’ care for their child.
One of the key proposals is the introduction of flexible parental leave in 2015. These new arrangements would still entitle employed mothers to 52 weeks of maternity leave but working parents would be able to “mix and match” leave, taking it in turns or together, providing the leave does not total more than 52 weeks. Mothers would have to take at least the initial two weeks of leave after birth but it would then be up to both parents to decide how they share the remaining weeks.
A total of 39 weeks’ paid leave would be available, paid at statutory maternity pay (SMP) rates, with mothers still having the option to stick with current maternity leave arrangements or choose the new flexible parental leave regime. The same rights would apply to parents who have adopted a child.
The 13-week unpaid parental leave period was increased to 18 weeks on 8 March 2013, with a one-year qualifying period. It is proposed to extend this to parents of children up to the age of 18 from 2015.
Changes to flexible working are also included in the Bill, with the right to request flexible working arrangements to be extended to all employees who have completed 26 weeks’ continuous service from 2014. Employers would have a duty to consider all requests in a ‘reasonable manner’ and would be able to refuse requests on business grounds.
However, while this new system is designed to improve the UK labour market by providing more diverse working patterns, it is unlikely to be without its teething problems.
Firstly, a system of shared parental leave is likely to be difficult to administer. Allowing parents to customise their own leave, dividing it up however they choose, could also present organisational problems for many employers. For example, finding cover will be particularly difficult when leave is broken up into different blocks.
While the proposed changes certainly represent a step in the right direction towards gender equality, the success or failure of the system will ultimately rest on whether fathers actually take the leave or not.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will consult on the practicalities this year and will review progress in 2018. Employment law experts – including Palmers – will be watching developments very carefully.
Lara Murray is an employment law solicitor at Palmers Solicitors, in Basildon, advising clients across a wide range of sectors. She is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association and can assist businesses in relation to all employment law matters, including parental leave and flexible working arrangements. For further information, please contact Lara on 01268 240000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.