April hailed the birth of the Shared Parental Leave Regulations.  The principle is simple: mothers, fathers, adopters (and their partners), with babies born on or after 5 April, will (subject to certain criteria) be able to determine how they share their time off work after their child is born or adopted.

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Straightforward it may sound, but the new 'SPL' system could potentially cause confusion, with its raft of lengthy and technical regulations guaranteed to cause a headache. Given that more workers than ever before will be entitled to take extended periods of leave in relation to childbirth or adoption, getting to grips with the new legislation is essential for employers, if they are going to ensure that they administer the system effectively.

Key Facts

Up to 50 weeks of leave (and up to 37 weeks of 'shared parental pay') will be available for eligible parents to take or share. This excludes the compulsory maternity leave period - a block of two weeks' leave, immediately after childbirth, which the mother must take by law.

A mother or adopter will be able to end their maternity or adoption leave early and share the untaken leave with the other parent as SPL. SPL can be taken either consecutively or concurrently, as long as the total time taken does not exceed what is jointly available to the couple.

How Should Employers be Dealing with SPL?

The Regulations host extensive eligibility criteria, notice requirements and return to work arrangements. If they haven't done so already, employers would be well advised to review their policies on parental leave and pay.  Clear and consistent policies will be crucial in order that employees easily understand the processes they need to go through to take parental leave, limiting the risk of disputes.

If businesses offer enhanced maternity pay, it will also be worth considering whether enhanced pay for SPL should be offered. Whilst companies are not legally obliged to offer enhanced SPL pay schemes, it is a possibility that not offering enhanced pay to partners as well as mothers could carry a risk of discrimination claims.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has produced 'The Employers' Technical Guide to Shared Parental Leave and Pay', which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/shared-parental-leave-and-pay-employers-technical-guide.

At over 50 pages long, it is hardly light reading. That being said, it has a useful FAQ section, and is broken down into manageable chunks. It is likely to become an invaluable tool for employers when finding their way around the legislation.

Proactivity is Key

A survey carried out in August 2014 found that just one in seven businesses said they were either 'well' or 'very well' prepared for the introduction of SPL. It is likely that those who did prepare will have seen it pay dividends.  With complex legislation at hand, employers need to be proactive, rather than reactive. Get a handle on shared parental leave, and don't be left holding the baby.