Shared parental leave plans announced

From April 2011, fathers in the UK will be able to take additional paternity leave if the mother of their child returns to work before using her full maternity leave entitlement. In January 2011, the British government announced plans to go further and allow both parents to take leave at the same time. The move will apply in cases of adoption as well as the birth of a child. The proposals have received a broadly positive reaction from the main employer and trade union organisations.

Current leave entitlements

Employees are entitled to take statutory ordinary paternity leave of one or two consecutive weeks if they become a biological or adoptive father. They qualify for such leave if they are the husband, civil partner (in a legally recognised same-sex civil partnership) or partner (a person who lives with the mother and child in an enduring family relationship, but is not a relative of the mother) of a mother or adoptive parent. The leave must be taken in the 56 days after the birth or adoption and the employee receives statutory paternity pay during the leave.

Employed mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave, followed immediately by the option of 26 weeks’ further additional maternity leave, and to receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks. In cases of adoption, one adoptive parent is entitled to claim similar rights.

Employed parents, including adoptive parents, are each entitled to take up to 13 weeks’ unpaid parental leave at any time up to a child’s fifth birthday. Unless a collective or workforce agreement provides otherwise, the leave must usually be taken in multiples of one week, with a maximum of four weeks’ leave per year.

Additional paternity leave

From April 2011, under the Additional Paternity Leave Regulations 2010, employees entitled to ordinary paternity leave will be able to take between two and 26 weeks of additional paternity leave in a single block up until the child’s first birthday, if the mother has returned to work before using her full maternity leave entitlement.

The leave, which also applies to adoption, starts 20 weeks after the birth or adoption at the earliest. During the additional leave, fathers receive statutory paternity pay if the mother has not used her full entitlement to statutory maternity pay.

Shared leave plans

The Coalition agreement (475Kb PDF) drawn up by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat government that took office in May 2010 (UK1005019I) stated: ‘We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave.’ On 17 January 2011, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced in a speech further details of this policy.

Mr Clegg said that the government wants to ‘modernise the opportunities for parents who work’ and promote better work-life balance. As part of this modernisation, the government plans to go beyond the new paternity leave rules that come into force in April. It will soon launch consultations on a new ‘properly flexible system of shared parental leave’, which it aims to introduce in 2015.

The basic principles underlying the proposed new system are that it must:

  • maintain women’s guaranteed right to paid time off in the first months after birth, and protect lone mothers’ rights;
  • transform the opportunities for fathers to take time off to care for their children;
  • allow mothers and fathers to share part of their leave, splitting it between them, in whatever way suits them best;
  • take into account employers’ needs and be simple to administer.

In advance of the consultation, Mr Clegg floated a number of ideas. These include maintaining mothers’ existing rights following birth, as well as fathers’ two-week ordinary entitlement, but beyond that sharing the overall pay and leave entitlement between parents. Both parents could take leave at the same time if they wished and leave could be taken in a number of segments rather than a single block, provided employers agreed to this. To encourage men to take more leave, there could be ‘use-it-or-lose it’ blocks of leave reserved for fathers, ideally in addition to the current total entitlement for parents, although this may not be affordable. Mr Clegg added that any changes would have to reflect the current difficult economic circumstances.

Social partner reactions

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said that it supports moves to make parental leave more flexible. However, Katja Hall, its Director for Employment Policy, stated in a press release:

Allowing parents to take ad hoc parcels of leave would make it hard for companies to plan ahead, so we favour parents taking bigger blocks of leave in one go. We want to work with the government to make sure the new system works for parents and employers. Any changes will need to be simple to administer and must allow firms to plan ahead to cover staff absences.

The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Brendan Barber, welcomed the government plans, arguing that the UK has the ‘most unequal parental leave arrangements in Europe’ and that ‘new parents should be able to decide for themselves who looks after their baby in the first year, rather than having the decision dictated by government regulation, as is currently the case’. He added that new mothers should be encouraged to take sufficient time off to recover and breastfeed (see press article).

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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