Government unveils proposals for statutory parental leave

In early August 1999, the UK government issued detailed proposals for Regulations to implement the rights to parental leave required by the EU parental leave Directive and to improve existing UK maternity leave provisions. The new Regulations will take effect from 15 December 1999.

On 4 August 1999, the trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers published a consultation document setting out the government's proposals for a statutory right for working parents to take parental leave and for improved maternity leave arrangements. The legislation will take the form of Regulations, and will take effect from 15 December 1999 - the deadline for implementing the requirements of the EU Council Directive on parental leave (96/34/EC).

Under the government's proposals, employers must provide for at least 13 weeks' parental leave for childcare purposes which may be taken by the parent of a child born or after 15 December 1999 up until the child's fifth birthday. To qualify for parental leave an employee must have at least one year's continuous service with the employer. The employee will remain employed while on parental leave but need not be paid.

The government has drawn up a model parental leave scheme in consultation with organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This will apply to all employers except those with their own legally enforceable scheme, introduced by means of a collective agreement with a trade union or a "workforce agreement" with all or part of a workforce not covered by collective bargaining.

The model scheme provides that leave may be taken in blocks of one week upwards, possibly subject to a maximum period of four weeks in any year - a limit favoured by the CBI. At least four weeks' notice would be required, with notice of double the amount of leave if the employee wants to take more than two weeks at a time, eg eight weeks' notice for four weeks' leave. The employer can reasonably postpone leave for up to six months where the needs of the business make this necessary. Time off for fathers straight after the birth of a baby cannot be postponed if at least three months' notice is given before the week in which the birth is expected.

In the area of maternity leave, the Regulations will increase ordinary maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks and reduce the qualifying period of employment for additional maternity leave from two years to one. Mothers who qualify for additional maternity leave will be able to extend their maternity leave until 29 weeks after the birth of their baby.

Measures to implement those aspects of the EU parental leave Directive which deal with the right to time off in the event of family emergencies were included in the final version of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (UK9902180F) and do not require further elaboration in the Regulations.

Mr Byers said that the government was proposing a "forward-looking package making it easier for parents to balance their work and family responsibilities whilst taking account of the needs of employers and minimising red tape". The CBI believes that the government's proposals represent "a reasonable balance between individual rights and business needs", but urged the government to finalise the Regulations quickly to give employers as much time as possible to prepare for the new provisions.

The TUC welcomed the proposals but warned that changes made by the government to the limit the impact of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (UK9907117N) would damage the government's "family-friendly" employment policies. TUC assistant general secretary David Lea reiterated the TUC's concern that if parental leave is to be unpaid, only better-off parents would be able to benefit (UK9903192N). He also urged that working parents should be able to take leave flexibly - on a daily or weekly basis or through reduced working hours. Unions also criticised the government's proposal that the right to parental leave would apply only in respect of children born or adopted after 15 December 1999, arguing that this might be inconsistent with the EU parental leave Directive.

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