The Government has announced that it intends to reform the UK's system of parental leave from 2015 to allow parents more flexibility in the sharing of childcare responsibilities.

Under the plans, a mother will continue to benefit from 52 weeks' maternity leave and (if eligible) 39 weeks' statutory maternity pay.  However, subject to taking at least 2 weeks' leave after giving birth, she may opt to end her maternity leave early and share the remaining period of leave and pay with her partner as flexible parental leave.  The existing framework in relation to additional paternity leave would be removed.

Within the flexible parental leave system, parents may take alternating or overlapping blocks of leave, provided that no more than 52 weeks' combined leave is taken in total. Each separate block of leave must last for a minimum of one week.

There is no intention that different employers will need to discuss employees' leave arrangements with each other.  If leave arrangements cannot be agreed between an employer and an employee the leave will revert to a single block of leave commencing on a date specified by the employee.

In order to access the flexible parental leave system and associated statutory pay, each partner will have to meet certain qualifying criteria in their own right (which will as far as possible mirror existing requirements for maternity and paternity leave and pay). The Government anticipates that the criteria will include earnings and length of service requirements.

The Government will launch a consultation at the start of 2013 to consider the details of how the flexible parental leave system will operate.

In further announcements the Government:

  • has committed to increase unpaid parental leave from 13 to 18 weeks with effect from March 2013, to comply with the European Parental Leave Directive;
  • has stated its intention in 2015 to raise the age limit for children in respect of whom parental leave can be taken from 5 years to 18 years;
  • has stated its intention that parents of a child born through a surrogacy arrangement will be eligible for statutory adoption leave and pay and flexible parental leave and pay provided that they meet certain qualifying criteria;
  • has stated its intention that partners of pregnant women are to receive the right to take unpaid time off work to attend up to two antenatal appointments; and
  • has ruled out any increase to ordinary paternity leave (currently 2 weeks) as 'unaffordable' at present, but expressed its desire to address this once economic conditions allow.

Announcements have also been made regarding proposals relating to the right to request flexible working.  Details can be found in our employment law update here.

Practical advice

  • Employers should note the increase in unpaid parental leave entitlement due to come into force in March 2013.
  • No action is required at present in relation to the other reforms.
  • We will keep you updated on relevant developments.