The Deputy Prime Minister gave a speech on 13 November 2012 announcing the extension of various pieces of legislation designed to assist working families. This followed last year’s ‘Consultation on Modern Workplaces’. We now have a response from the Government on to two strands of the consultation, flexible parental leave and flexible working. The reforms are driven by what Nick Clegg referred to as the “one million women missing from the UK economy”, namely women who would like to work but who find themselves locked out of the labour market when they have a family. He believes that this absence of women from the working environment is adversely affecting our economy.
So what does the Government propose? First, the Government will change the law so that from 2015 the UK will have a new system of flexible parental leave with the option to share leave more flexibly between parents and for longer. The primary idea is that both working parents will be able to share the current 12 months’ statutory maternity leave (combined with 9 months’ statutory maternity pay) either consecutively or concurrently, in a minimum of one week blocks. Secondly, as well as extending the rights of adoptive parents to paid leave in order to avoid discrepancies with biological parents, the Government will increase the maximum period of unpaid parental leave from 13 to 18 weeks in March 2013.
Finally, the Government has also announced an intention to extend the right to request flexible working, such as flexi-time, compressed hours and working from home. Currently this right allows certain employees to request a change in hours, times or location of work for the purpose of enabling childcare for children under the age of 17 (or a disabled child under 18, or certain adults). This applies to parents and others, such as adopters and guardians, responsible for the upbringing of children. The Government’s new plan is that from 2014 this right will be extended to all employees, albeit limited to the purpose of care, opening the right up to working relatives and possibly close family friends. Although employees will still have to have half a year’s continuous employment to make the request, the procedural requirements will be swept away leaving employers with the obligation to deal with requests “in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable period of time”.
Undoubtedly the Government’s plans will give parents more choice, but it is not clear that these changes will necessarily fulfil the Government’s vision of returning more women to work, allowing employer’s to retain their best staff and aiding an economic recovery. In relation to requests for flexible working, as now employers can refuse any request made if they have reason to believe that their business will be adversely affected. As for the sharing of parental leave, it is far from clear what the level of take up will be between couples and whether it will allow, as Nick Clegg is apparently seeking, better equality in the workplace and an opportunity for women to fulfil their working ambitions.