Parental leave and flexible working rights reform

In November 2012, the UK coalition government confirmed plans to introduce changes to existing statutory provisions for parental leave and flexible working by 2015. The key proposals include the introduction of more flexible maternity and paternity leave, and the extension to all employees of the right to request flexible working. The government’s announcement was broadly welcomed by trade unions and, with some reservations, employers’ groups.

Background

On 13 November 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government announced its response to a consultation on ‘modern workplaces’ held in 2011 (UK1106029I). It confirmed that it intended to press ahead with proposals to reform the legislative framework for parental leave and flexible working.

The consultation ran for 12 weeks and sought views on:

  • the introduction of a new system of flexible parental leave to allow mothers and fathers to share leave, and to give parents and employers greater choice about how leave is taken;
  • how to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees – currently only working parents are eligible.

Announcing the outcome of the consultation, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that the government would introduce ‘radical reforms’:

Our current system of maternity leave is antiquated and out of step with the wishes of modern parents who want much greater flexibility in how they look after their children... In the future, both mothers and fathers will be able to take control of how they balance those precious first months with their child and their careers. This is good news not only for parents and parents to be, but employers too who will benefit from a much more flexible and motivated workforce.

Employment Relations Minister Jo Swinson said:

Extending the right to request flexible working will enable all employees to discuss flexible working with their employer, and move the discussion away from why the employee needs to work flexibly, and onto how flexible working will work for the business.

Key proposals

Under the government’s proposals, working parents would be able to choose how they share the care of their child. Employed mothers would still be entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. However, parents would have much greater flexibility about how they ‘mix and match’ their leave. They could take it in turns or take it together, as long as the total was no more than 52 weeks.

The government hopes this new entitlement will allow both parents to keep a strong link with their workplace, helping employers to attract and retain women in their organisations and preventing women dropping out of the workforce following childbirth. The stated aim is that women would face less of a ‘career penalty’ for taking an extended period of time off.

Fathers would also gain a new right to take unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments. Statutory paternity leave would remain at two weeks, but the government planned to keep this under review and look at extending this period once the economy was in a stronger position.

The new proposals would also extend the right to request flexible working to all employees. The government’s aim is to:

...remove the cultural expectation that flexible working only has benefits for parents and carers, allowing individuals to manage their work alongside other commitments and improving the UK labour market by providing more diverse working patterns.

The current statutory procedure for considering requests would be removed. Instead employers would have a duty to consider all requests in a reasonable manner. Businesses would have the flexibility to refuse requests on business grounds but ministers stressed that the new laws were expected to bring benefits to employers as well. They cited evidence from the 2007 Third work-life balance employer survey (143Kb PDF) that showed flexible working created a productive and motivated workforce, saved employers money and helped them to retain staff.

The next steps

The government plans to legislate on this during 2013. Changes to flexible working will be introduced in 2014 and to flexible parental leave in 2015.

Social partner reaction

The government’s announcement was broadly welcomed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and, with some reservations, by employers’ groups.

Katja Hall, Chief Policy Director for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), commented:

Flexible parental leave is a good way to support working families, and businesses realise that this is good for retaining talent... Companies support the right of all staff to request flexible working, but they must be able to decide each case on its merits, as it may not be practical for all firms.

Adam Marshall, Director of Policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said:

We support the concept of flexible working, but the proposals to extend the right to request to all workers could make it more difficult for employers to offer flexibility to employees who are parents or have caring duties.

Mark Hall, IRRU, Warwick Business School

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