We are a step closer to the greatly anticipated system of shared parental leave within the UK as a result of the Government’s recent response to its consultation on Modern Workplaces. The proposals announced by Nick Clegg on 13 November 2012 will give working parents greater flexibility to decide the way in which their children are cared for.
The Government has confirmed that it wants to give families the opportunity to move away from the traditional approach of mothers staying at home, while the father goes out to work, an approach that was prevalent at the time when the current arrangements were brought into force.
The Government has also announced that it intends to legislate to encourage more fathers to take a greater role in caring for their children (enabling women to return to work earlier if they so choose); with a view to increased flexibility for employers and employees to reach agreement on how to balance work commitments and domestic needs without the need for legislative intervention.
In summary, the Government’s response confirms that:
All employed women will remain entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave;
Fathers will continue to remain entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave and paternity pay (albeit that this will be revisited with a view to potentially increasing these rights in 2018);
Mothers will be required to take two weeks off following the birth of a child for recovery purposes, but flexibility around leave will then kick in - enabling the mother to return to work if she so wishes and/or to share the remainder of the 52 weeks’ leave with her partner;
Such flexible parental leave will be up to a maximum of 50 weeks, with 37 weeks’ statutory pay;
Each working parent will need to meet the qualifying criteria for flexible leave and/or flexible leave pay in their own right and will need to make the necessary representations to their own employer;
a new right will be created allowing fathers and partners of pregnant women to take unpaid leave to attend two ante-natal appointments with their partner (albeit that it is already best practice for employers to allow attendance at such appointments);
adoptive parents will be eligible for the new flexible parental leave on equal terms with biological parents;
parents of a child born through a surrogacy arrangement who meet the requisite criteria to apply for a Parental Order will be eligible for statutory adoption leave and pay, and for flexible parental leave and pay. This is a notable addition to the Government’s response in that the UK Government is being proactive on this issue, rather than waiting for a direction from Europe;
Unpaid parental leave is expected to increase in March 2013 from 13 to 18 weeks in order to comply with the revised EU Parental Leave Directive; and
The age limit on parental leave will increase from 5 years to 18 years in 2015, providing each parent with the right to up to 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave for each child under 18.
Changes to Flexible Working Requests
The Government has also announced changes to the right to request flexible working.
Currently, any parent with a child under 17, or under 18 if the child is disabled, can ask for more flexible working patterns. However, the Government noted that there is still a stigma attached to requesting flexible working and, as such, has confirmed that it intends to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26-weeks’ continuous service. The current statutory procedure under which employers consider flexible working requests will be replaced with a duty to deal with requests in a reasonable manner, and within a ‘reasonable’ period of time, with ACAS providing a statutory code of practice in due course on the meaning of “reasonable” in this context in due course.
Aside from the expected increase in unpaid parental leave from 13 to 18 weeks in March 2013, the majority of the changes are still some time away.
A further consultation considering the detail of how the new system of flexible parental leave system will work in practice will be launched early in 2013. It is anticipated that the Government will then legislate on this area next year, with changes to flexible working being introduced in 2014, followed by the new system of flexible parental leave in 2015.
Albeit that the Government believes that a modern system of shared leave will reap “economic and social benefits for all”, the majority of employers and business groups have received notification of the changes with trepidation, given the obvious administrative, workflow, absence cover and policy challenges posed by a more flexible system. Discrimination concerns may also arise where working fathers of the future are not offered the comparable enhanced maternity benefits engrained into employee handbooks across the UK.
In saying that, whilst working parents will undoubtedly welcome the Government’s proposals in theory, only time will tell as to whether they actually wish to take up the truly shared parental opportunities ‘from day one’ that the forthcoming system will offer.