New act gives extended rights to parental leave

The Work and Families Act became law in June 2006. Among its key provisions are longer paid maternity leave, additional paid paternity leave for fathers if the mother returns to work before the end of her maternity leave period, and a new right for carers to request flexible working time arrangements. Implementation of the act will be on a phased basis. The legislation has been received largely positively by the social partners.

On 21 June 2006, the Work and Families Bill (UK0511102F) completed its passage through parliament and reached the UK statute book. The new Work and Families Act 2006 will enable ministers to introduce a range of new ‘family-friendly’ employment rights. These will come into effect in a number of stages.

Key points of legislation

The act’s main purposes are to:

  • extend the maximum period for which statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance and statutory adoption pay are payable;
  • introduce ‘keeping in touch days’ so that, where employees and employers agree, a woman on maternity leave can go into work for a few days without losing her right to maternity leave and pay;
  • establish a new entitlement to fathers to take additional paternity leave to care for a child and to receive statutory pay if the mother returns to work before the end of her maternity leave period;
  • widen the scope of the existing law on flexible working (UK0304104F) to enable more people with caring responsibilities to request to work flexible hours;
  • extend workers’ statutory annual leave entitlement.

Other provisions in the legislation are intended explicitly to help employers, including:

  • measures to help them better manage the administration of statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay;
  • the requirement of an extended, two-month notice period where women (or their employers) want to vary their return dates from maternity leave;
  • the stipulation that employers can make reasonable contact with their employees on maternity leave to help them plan and ease the mother’s return to work.

Phased implementation

The act provides the trade and industry secretary with powers to make regulations to give effect to its provisions.

The government has already consulted on draft maternity and adoption leave and pay regulations, and put forward regulations before parliament. These include provisions for extending notice periods in relation to varying return dates from maternity leave, and for enabling an employee on maternity leave to agree with her employer to work for up to 10 days during the statutory maternity leave period without bringing that period to an end. These regulations came into force on 1 October 2006, and apply in respect of expected childbirths or adoptions on or after 1 April 2007.

Paid maternity and adoption leave will be increased from six months to nine months from April 2007, but the government aims to increase this to a year’s paid leave by the end of the current parliament. The government estimates that about 400,000 mothers per year will benefit from this change, and that between 240,000 and 280,000 fathers will benefit from the new right to paternity leave, to be introduced alongside the extension of maternity/adoption pay to 12 months. Consultation on the specifics of the new right to additional paternity leave and pay took place earlier this year and regulations providing further details are awaited.

The government intends that carers of elderly or sick adult relatives should be able to request flexible working from April 2007. The right to request flexible working is currently limited to employees with young children. Consultation on the qualifying conditions that should apply to this new right has been carried out and draft regulations will be produced shortly.

The government is currently consulting on extending the statutory holiday entitlement to make paid time off for bank and public holidays additional to the four-week entitlement provided by the Working Time Regulations 1998 (UK0607039I).

A balanced package

The government sees the new legislation as ‘a balanced package of rights and responsibilities for both employers and employees’. According to Trade and Industry Secretary, Alistair Darling, ‘the government recognises the difficulties many face in trying to juggle work and family life, and the new rights will help make life easier for people across the country … The new rights have been introduced following consultations with businesses, and will benefit employers by helping them plan ahead and manage maternity leave with greater certainty.’

The new legislation has been welcomed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), while criticism from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and other employer organisations has been limited and generally muted (UK0511102F).

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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