Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has today announced new plans to radically shake up what he refers to as the “clapped out” parental leave system.

The good news for employers is that the Government will not be extending the right to maternity or paternity leave beyond the current limits (52 weeks and 2 weeks respectively). The decision on paternity leave will be reviewed in 2018.

However, instead it is implementing a new extended additional right to parental leave, to either parent, during the maternity leave period.

Under the new rules, parents will be able to divide this time between them or take time off together.

During the 52 weeks of maternity leave, a mother will be able to trigger the right to additional parental leave at any point so that whatever time is left to run on her original year can be:

  1. taken off by her partner instead; or
  2. divided between the two of them (i.e. each taking short periods in turns); or
  3. taken together (i.e. if the couple take 6 weeks off together, this will use 12 weeks of the leave); or
  4. utilised in separate blocks (i.e. the mother could return to work for 2 months then take a further period of time as parental leave).

In relation to points 2 and 4 at present once a women returns from maternity leave (e.g. if this is after 3 months) she cannot then elect to go back onto maternity leave, even within the 52 week period.

Mr Clegg said that the only rule is that “no more than 12 months can be taken in total; with no more than 9 months at guaranteed pay” (to be shared between the couple).

Criteria will need to be met to qualify for the leave and/or pay in their own right. Where possible, these qualifying criteria will mirror the criteria for existing entitlements such as maternity pay and allowance and paternity pay and leave.

The change is to be introduced by Mr Clegg to provide women with “real choice” so not to restrict their opportunities the moment they start planning a family.

Other changes include an increase in unpaid parental leave from 13 to 18 weeks in March 2013, and by 2015 the right for men to take unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments, as well as age limit on parental leave to increase from 5 years to 18 years.

While these changes will be welcomed by couples planning a family, some businesses have watched the news with concern, particularly the issues relating to the level of flexibility. The announcement clarified that flexible parental leave must be taken in a minimum of one-week blocks. After agreement between parents on how the leave should be taken it must be agreed with their employer. If the pattern cannot be agreed, the leave defaults to a single block to commence on a date specified by the employee.

While employers have the right to prevent an employee from taking leave in a pattern, the concern is that this increased flexibility could still place a large strain on businesses, particularly smaller businesses who may find such flexibility difficult to accommodate.

There is also uncertainty as to what the notice requirements will be in relation to the taking of such leave, with businesses obviously wanting as much notice as possible. All that has been said at this time is that that the government will try to mirror the criteria that are in place at this time which are that:

  • a woman must notify her employer no later than the end of the 15th week before the expected week of birth (or, if that is not reasonably practicable, as soon as is reasonably practicable) that she is she is pregnant and provide expected week of birth and when she intends her Ordinary Maternity Leave to start.
  • the partner must also notify their employer no later than the end of the 15th week before the expected week of birth (or, if that is not reasonably practicable, as soon as is reasonably practicable) that their partner is pregnant (and that they are an eligible partner) and provide expected week of birth and when they intend for their Ordinary Paternity Leave to start.

Business will now have to wait as to the legal specifics behind the announcement, and hope that at least it is a simpler process than in place today.

A consultation considering the detail of how the new system of flexible parenting leave system will work will be launched early in the New Year. Further to which the Government will introduce legislation as soon as Parliamentary time allows, in order to implement the reforms by 2015.