On 13 November 2012, Nick Clegg announced plans significantly to overhaul the current parental leave framework. It is the Government’s intention that the new system will radically transform the current situation of female dominated post-birth childcare. It is also envisaged that the proposed changes will help to eliminate the unfavourable effect childbirth can have on a mother’s career progression.
The changes proposed are:-
Flexible Parental Leave
Further to the reform introduced in April 2012 (which entitled fathers to take over childcare after five months of maternity leave) in 2015, parents will be able to take flexible parental leave, two weeks after birth.
Therefore, if a mother decides to return to work prior to the 52-week period of maternity leave expiring, the remainder can be shared by the mother and her partner. A maximum of 50 weeks of maternity leave can be taken as flexible parental leave. The leave can be taken individually or concurrently, nine months of which will be paid leave at the statutory rate. The rules on paternity leave and pay will remain unchanged.
Under the proposals, the parents will be required to provide adequate notice to their employers and will be responsible for agreeing the specific dates of absence. Flexible parental leave will need to be taken in a minimum of one-week blocks.
Parents who adopt and couples who become parents through surrogacy (who meet the criteria for a Parental Order) will be entitled to the flexibility that the new system permits, in the same way as biological parents. In addition, fathers will benefit from the right to attend two ante-natal appointments on a non-paid basis at any stage during the pregnancy.
Unpaid Parental Leave
In March 2013, the entitlement to unpaid parental leave per child will increase from 13 to 18 weeks. Further, in 2015, the age limit of a child for whom a parent is allowed to take unpaid leave will increase from 5 years to 18 years.
Flexible Working Patterns
Currently, the ability to request flexible working patterns is restricted to any parent with a child under 17 or carers. However, the Government has announced that from 2014, this right will be extended to all employees ie not just parents and carers.
The Government plans to retain the current restrictions which stipulate that an employee is required to have satisfied the 26 week qualifying period of continuous employment. In addition, the number of requests for flexible working will remain limited at one per year per employee.
From the date of implementation, employers will be under a duty to respond to requests in a ‘reasonable manner’, within a ‘reasonable period’ of time (as opposed to within the current strict, statutory timetable). It is envisaged that ACAS will produce specific guidance on the definition of ‘reasonable’ in these instances.
Whilst the new system will be welcomed by many employees, it is expected that employers, specifically small companies, will view the proposals with scepticism and as a potential administrative minefield.