Nick Clegg has shared his vision for the future of workplaces in yesterday’s speech, which launched part of the Government’s response to last year’s modern workplaces consultation. That consultation had four strands, and we now have responses on two of them - flexible working and flexible parental leave.
The extension of the right to request flexible working has long been on the Coalition Government’s agenda, so it is no surprise to read of plans to extend it to all employees in 2014. The right will continue to be confined to employees with at least six months’ continuous employment. However the existing procedural requirements for dealing with requests will be swept away and replaced with an obligation on employers to deal with requests “in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable period of time”. This obligation will be backed up by a statutory code of practice to be drafted by ACAS, plus accompanying best practice guidance.
Flexible parental leave has also had a long gestation period, and it will be a fair time yet before it is ready to emerge in its final form. The idea is that as from 2015 the current 12 months’ maternity leave (combined with nine months’ statutory maternity pay) will become much more flexible, allowing it to be shared by both working parents, either consecutively or concurrently, in a minimum of one week blocks. There will be a short period of compulsory maternity leave (in most cases two weeks), but there are no plans to reserve any part of the total leave package exclusively for fathers (other than the two weeks’ paternity leave they are already entitled to). It will take a great deal of work to translate this vision into practice. This process will start in the first half of next year, when a further consultation on the implementation arrangements is due.
The final part of yesterday’s package confirms that the maximum period of unpaid parental leave per parent per child will be extended from 13 to 18 weeks in March 2013, as required by the revised Parental Leave Directive. From 2015 this will be combined with raising the age limit for each child, so that it can be taken up to the point he or she turns 18.
One suspects that employers will not be too troubled by the extension of the right to request flexible working, particularly if it is coupled by the relaxation of the formal procedural requirements. After all, employers can always so no, and will be entitled to do so if they have reason to believe their business will be adversely affected. It is less clear how much say they will have in couples’ plans for sharing their parental leave entitlement. Will we will have to wait until at least next year for answers to this question, and many others about the Government’s plans to flex our workplaces.