Employers and unions respond to parental leave green paper

In March 2001, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress published their responses to the UK government's green paper on parental leave. The issue on which there is the sharpest disagreement between the two organisations is the proposed right for new parents to opt to work part time.

In its March 2001 submission to the Department of Trade and Industry, responding to the government's green paper on parental leave (UK0101106F) the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) urged the government to abandon proposals which would give new parents a statutory right to reduce their working hours. The CBI says that companies favour the encouragement of flexible working practices to help parents balance work with family responsibilities, but are opposed to legislation on the matter. The CBI argues that it would be impractical to introduce a legal right to work part time because firms cannot guarantee reduced hours. The suggested so-called "harm test", allowing employers to refuse requests to work part time in certain circumstances would, says the CBI, "only increase uncertainty" and lead to more employment tribunal cases.

Among other comments, the CBI wants to see measures to help employers cope with the right to two weeks' state-paid paternity leave already announced by the government (UK0103117N). These include requiring the leave to be taken all at once near the time of a birth, ensuring adequate notice periods and restricting the right to employees with over 12 months' service. As regards the proposal in the green paper to increase the period of unpaid maternity leave to one year, the CBI says that smaller firms would find it harder than large firms to cover the extra absence involved.

In contrast, the response to the green paper submitted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) urges the government to "press ahead" with proposals to allow working parents to request a reduction in their working hours and to "stand firm against employer claims that [this] would be an unnecessary burden on UK businesses". The TUC submission quotes a recent Equal Opportunities Commission poll, which found that 79% of respondents said that parents should have a legal right to move from full-time to part-time working. It also argues that similar laws introduced in some other EU countries have not had a detrimental effect on the competitiveness of companies.

The TUC says the government could help several million parents "at a stroke" by abandoning UK law's current restriction of parental leave rights to parents of children born on or after 15 December 1999. The TUC believes that the relevant UK regulations do not adequately implement the EU parental leave Directive and is pursuing a legal challenge against the UK government on this basis (UK0006176N).

Meanwhile, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) has warned that improvements to maternity and parental leave rights are unlikely to be effective unless better means of securing compliance are introduced. A report by NACAB, published on 21 March 2001, highlights the extent to which existing statutory provisions are flouted by employers, with many women being dismissed unlawfully for becoming pregnant or refused the right to return to their job after maternity leave. The report calls for the establishment of a dedicated, proactive employment rights agency - or "Fair Employment Commission" - to ensure that employers, particularly small firms, meet their statutory obligations to their employees.

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