In May 2011, the Government published its Consultation on Modern Workplaces, which put forward several proposals concerning family friendly rights. There is a growing realisation that the workplace needs to become more aware of, and attuned to, the impact of family life on both employers and employees. Women are playing a greater part in the workplace, despite the undeniable glass ceiling which still refuses to shatter in many industries and sectors; fathers expect to enjoy greater involvement in their children’s lives and many employees - especially older ones - have increasing caring responsibilities. The purpose of the consultation was to debate these issues and the Government’s related proposals.

The period of consultation ended in August 2011 and in November 2012 the Government published the following response:

  1. Flexible Working

Currently, employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous employment and who have children under 17 or disabled children under 18, plus certain carers have the right to request flexible working. The Government aims to extend this right to all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous employment, whether they have children or not. The procedure for making a request is under review, but unlikely to change much. Plus, it looks like the permitted reasons for turning down a request will remain the same.

In practice, it will be interesting to see what effect this change will have as it is likely that the sorts of employees who would want to work flexibly would be likely to qualify under the old rules anyway. It may be a blessing in disguise for some employers. For example, an employer may be about to consult with an employee to reduce his hours for financial reasons; if a colleague in the same team makes a request to work flexibly this could reduce the financial burden on the employer without having to approach the other employee. We will have to wait and see what sort of effect the new provision will have.

  1. Parental Leave

Currently, employees with 1 year’s continuous employment and a child under 5 or disabled child under 18 have the right to take up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave for the purposes of caring for that child. No more than four weeks’ leave can be taken in any one year. Following the consultation, it was announced that from 2015, the right will be extended to all children under 18. The length of service and other requirements will stay the same.

The current appetite for this sort of leave is low and it may be that the changes have little effect, especially straight away, but parental leave is not necessarily something to be looked upon negatively. The opportunity to spend some time away from work with a child, perhaps in difficult family circumstances, can breed employee loyalty and retention.

  1. Shared Parental Leave

The current system of leave following the birth or adoption of a child is fairly archaic and inflexible and despite moves made to encourage parents to share what is usually maternity leave, there has been little uptake.

The intention is that from 2015, parents with 26 weeks’ continuous service can trigger a new scheme and share parental leave and pay between them, subject to two weeks’ post birth compulsory maternity leave. Parents will be able to choose to take leave concurrently or to alternate throughout the year or for just one of them to use the full entitlement of 52 weeks in total with 39 weeks’ being paid at the equivalent of the statutory maternity pay rate. The usual 2 weeks’ paternity leave to be taken within 56 days of birth will be retained on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. Parents must work for the same employer throughout the leave period and cannot carry over leave entitlement if they change jobs. There will be a procedure put in place to deal with the mechanics with a two week discussion period to agree leave.

Quite how this will work in practice will have to be seen and it may be that there is little change in the number of fathers taking up these rights. However, the administrative burdens for employers could prove difficult.

We are, therefore, entering into a new era of ‘wait and see’. There is a certain amount of determination on the part of the Government to see these new proposals succeed, but in practice, how much things will change is still up for debate. It may well be up to a few trail blazing employees and employers to start testing out the new rights before the rest of us get up to speed.