By Jackie Scarfe

The latest government proposals in respect to encouraging a ‘family-friendly’ workplace seem to have met with general approval both from business and employee groups. Under the proposals, unveiled last week by the Deputy Prime Minister George Osborne, from 2015, after the first two weeks of a mother's maternity leave, the remaining 50 weeks can be shared between her and her partner.

This leave can be taken in turns or by both partners at the same time, and will run for a maximum of 12 months, nine of which will be at statutory pay as currently.

The proposal would replace the system that has been in place since April 2011, under which parents could share some leave, but this had to be taken in single blocks and could only be taken from the 20th week after the birth. In addition, the mother had to have returned to work for the father or partner to be eligible to take the leave. The new rights will be offered to parents of adopted children as well as biological parents.

It has long been argued that the current arrangements are too restrictive on several counts. They do not allow fathers or partners to share the burden of childcare in the earlier weeks of the child’s life (apart from the 2 weeks’ ordinary paternity leave), and they encourage women to stay off work for longer than perhaps desired, thus potentially holding back careers and depriving businesses of key female talent for up to a year at a time. Also, there is the additional argument that the current arrangements also work against women of child bearing age when they apply for jobs or promotion.

So, it would seem that the new proposals will produce a win/win situation.

However, for every upside, there is inevitably a down side, and these new proposals are no exception. Some businesses offer enhanced maternity pay and those that offer particularly good packages could be hit especially hard by new fathers, (as well as new mothers) opting to take the larger proportion of the statutory leave instead of their partners whose employer may offer a less generous option. This could potentially have the effect of companies choosing to restrict their enhanced offering or even offering statutory pay only which would of course, be a step backwards in the overall ‘family friendly’ agenda.

Another headache for companies may come from trying to find temporary replacement staff for just a few months. It is difficult enough currently to find good staff to cover 9-12 months, but if more couples decide to share the leave more equally, then it will mean a lot more companies are trying to source staff to cover for shorter periods.

Some commentators on the subject also fear that the new proposals could negatively discriminate against young males in their late 20s and 30s. It has generally been accepted that females of this age regularly face discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotion for fear that they will, within a year or two, go off on many months of maternity leave. The new proposals may spark a rise in similar situations against young males if they are known to be in steady relationships.

Clegg has committed to a review of the new rights in 2018. Many will be watching however, from their very introduction, both with curiosity and some trepidation, as to whether the impact will be as positive to both business, equality and women’s career development, as is being promised.

 

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