Government consults on ‘modern workplaces’

In May 2011, the UK conservative-liberal government launched a consultation on changes to employment law aimed at encouraging ‘a more fair and flexible approach at work’. The modern workplaces proposals notably include a new system of flexible shared parental leave, which increases the amount of paternity leave fathers are entitled to after birth or adoption. The proposals have received a broadly positive reaction from the main employer and trade union organisations.

Background

On 16 May 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (UK1005019I) initiated a consultation on modern workplaces. It sought views, by 8 August, on a range of proposed employment law changes aimed at encouraging ‘a more fair and flexible approach at work’ and contributing to what the government describes as its ‘vision of modern employment based on freedom, fairness and responsibility for both employers and employees’.

The main proposals relate to flexible, family-friendly employment practices and notably include a reform of parental leave, as promised earlier in 2011 (UK1102029I).

Flexible parental leave

The government proposes introducing a new, flexible system of shared parental leave from 2015. Under its proposals, mothers would retain an exclusive entitlement to 18 weeks’ maternity leave, taken continuously around the time of the baby’s birth, and to statutory maternity pay during this period. Fathers would retain their entitlement to two weeks’ continuous ‘ordinary’ paternity leave and pay soon after the birth.

At present, after the first 18 weeks, mothers have the right to take up to 34 more continuous weeks of maternity leave, of which 21 weeks are paid. After the two weeks of ordinary paternity leave, fathers can take up to 26 continuous weeks of ‘additional’ leave, if the mother has returned to work before using her full maternity leave entitlement. Fathers can receive statutory paternity pay if the mother has not used her full statutory maternity pay entitlement (UK1102029I).

Further, employed parents are each entitled to 13 weeks’ unpaid parental leave in the period until a child’s fifth birthday. After the initial 18 weeks of maternity leave, the government’s has a number of proposals.

  • The remaining 34 weeks of maternity leave entitlement would be redesignated as ‘flexible parental leave’, available equally to either parent, while the remaining 21 weeks’ maternity pay would become ‘shared parental pay’.
  • Of the 34 weeks’ flexible parental leave entitlement, four weeks (paid) would be reserved for each parent, while the remainder could be taken by either parent, separately or concurrently. So that mothers can still take the same total amount of leave they are currently entitled to, the period of paid leave available to them would be increased by the four weeks that will be reserved for the father.
  • The scheme would incorporate the current right to 13 weeks’ unpaid parental leave, giving parents the right to parental leave which can be used use from the end of maternity leave through their child’s early years (possibly beyond the current limit of the child’s fifth birthday). The new provisions would also supersede the current additional paternity leave and pay scheme.

Similar provisions would apply to same-sex couples and cases of adoption.

The government is also seeking views on allowing employers and employees to agree greater flexibility in when leave can be taken, such as taking leave on a part-time basis or breaking leave into two or more periods.

Other issues

The consultation also covers:

  • extending the statutory right to request flexible working (UK0304104F) to all employees;
  • allowing the carryover of statutory annual leave entitlement into the next leave year, where the employee has been unable to take leave due to being sick or taking family-related leave (this is in order to comply with European Court of Justice rulings – EU0910039I);
  • allowing employment tribunals to require employers that are found to have discriminated on grounds of sex, in relation to pay, to conduct an equal pay audit and publish the results.

Reactions

Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, said:

Our proposals will encourage greater choice by giving employees and their employers the flexibility to find arrangements to suit them both.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) welcomed the proposed increase in paid leave for parents and the allocation of four weeks’ leave to fathers, which ‘builds on reforms brought in by the last government and will encourage more fathers to take time off’. It also applauded the proposed extension to all employees of the right to request flexible working, arguing that the current scheme has been highly successful (UK0806049I).

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) argued that the future parental leave scheme should be ‘open to both parents, be simple to administer and allow employers to reject complex patterns of leave’. It is concerned by the proposal to increase the total period of leave by four weeks, as ‘the UK already offers some of the most generous provisions in the world’. The CBI also opposes the proposal on equal pay audits.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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