Last week the government announced plans for more flexible working arrangements for employee, including shared parental leave, as part of the Children and Families Bill.
The government says it wants to “remove the cultural expectation that flexible working only has benefits for parents and carers, allowing individuals to manage their work alongside other commitments”.
“Current workplace arrangements are old-fashioned and rigid,” argued Business Minister Jo Swinson. “The Children and Families Bill will bring the way mums and dads balance their lives at work and at home into the 21st century.”
Under the new system:
- Employed mothers will still be entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave as a day one right
- Mothers can choose to end their maternity leave after the initial two week recovery period; working parents can then decide how they want to share the remaining leave
- Fathers will gain a new right to take unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments
- There will be new statutory payment for parents on shared parental leave with the same qualifying requirements that currently apply to statutory maternity and paternity pay
- Those who have adopted a child will be entitled to the same pay and leave as birth parents.
“Employers will soon get used to more men taking time off after their child is born and more mothers returning to work earlier, shattering the perception that it is mainly a woman’s role to stay at home and look after the child,” argued Swinson.
“These measures will really help our aim of ensuring more businesses are making best use of women’s talents throughout the organisation, from the boardroom to the shop floor. This Bill will also allow fathers to have greater involvement in the early stages of pregnancy and raising their child.”
She concluded: “The new system is good for business as it will create a more motivated and flexible, talented workforce. Employers will be able to attract and retain women and prevent them from dropping out of the world of work once they start a family. Flexible working will also help widen the pool of talent in the labour market, helping to drive growth.”
The proposals meet with approval from the employers organisation, the CBI. “Shared parental leave can be a win-win for employers and employees, supporting working families while helping businesses to retain talent,” said Katja Hall, CBI Chief Policy Director.
“The extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees reflects common practice in many workplaces, “she added, but warned: “Businesses have to balance the needs of all their employees as well as customers, so they must retain the right to say no.”
Tim Thomas, Head of Employment & Skills Policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, cautioned that there would be a need for the government to support companies to make the necessary changes.
“Employers and parents will need support adapting to this and Government must ensure the changes announced today complement existing business arrangements,” he said. “Further complication to an already complex area must be avoided and businesses must remain free to reach agreements which meet the needs of both workers and employers together”.
But Helen Wells. Campaign Director for the Opportunity Now gender equality in the workplace campaign from Business in the Community, hailed the proposals as “one of the biggest legislative changes to positively impact the progress of gender equality in the workplace.”
She said: “The ability to share childcare responsibility within a family is core to women’s success in the workplace. The prize for getting this right is immense – fathers are involved in their children’s lives right from the beginning and women no longer suffer career penalties for having children.”
But she warned: “It is vital that families are supported to make their own choices over how the leave is taken – neither parent should come under pressure to only take the minimum leave. Shared parental leave is a complex piece of legislation and its success will depend on how effectively it is implemented.”
It is likely that some aspects of shared care arrangements will be complex and difficult for employers to implement, observed Jonathan Exten-Wright, Partner from law firm DLA Piper.
“The new rights for surrogate parents to attend ante-natal appointments and take paid adoption leave will fill a gap in the existing family rights which will allow all parents time to bond with their children, however the family comes into being,” he said.
Another significant step is the introduction of the right to request flexible working for all employees, even for those who are not carers in any capacity. While the right has been extended, employers are also being given much greater flexibility over how they deal with requests and significantly longer to make a decision on whether to allow flexible working.”
The Bill is a welcome step and will create flexibility for all working families but employers would no doubt welcome further guidance on how the new shared leave should operate in practice."