Employment Law Advice — Employees
Shared Parental Leave
According to a recent research poll of 1,000 women in the UK, one in seven women reported loosing her job while on maternity leave. In an attempt to reduce discrimination based on pregnancy and childbirth and make it easier for men to have an equal role in raising their children, the government has launched the Children and Families Bill. This will introduce shared parental leave for mothers and fathers in 2015.
The current position
Women currently have the right to up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, regardless of their length of service. An employee must take at least two weeks of compulsory maternity leave after the birth of her baby. Women receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks; for the first six weeks, this is 90 per cent of normal weekly earnings and for the remaining 33 weeks it is paid at a prescribed rate, which is £136.78 per week (as at 7.4.13). To receive this, a woman must have been employed for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the week her baby is due.
At the moment, men can take ordinary paternity leave of one or two weeks, within 56 days of the birth of the baby. They need 26 weeks’ service by the end of the 15th week before the week the baby is due. The rate of pay is currently £136.78 per week. Fathers can also take between two and 26 weeks’ additional paternity leave, which has to be taken before the child’s first birthday if the mother has returned to work. If the mother has at least two weeks of statutory maternity pay remaining, the father will receive additional statutory paternity pay at the prescribed rate of £136.78 per week until the statutory maternity pay expires.
The government proposals
The new scheme will allow parents to share the statutory maternity leave and pay that is only available to mothers at the moment. Ordinary paternity leave and pay will continue but additional paternity leave and pay will be abolished. The leave period will be 52 weeks, of which 39 weeks will be paid. Mothers will still have to take the first two weeks after the birth but the parents will be able to share the remaining 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay and take it separately or at the same time. The combined amount of leave cannot exceed 52 weeks. In addition, fathers will be entitled to unpaid time off work to attend two antenatal appointments.
How it will work in practice
The government is consulting on the practicalities and the details will be set out in regulations in due course. It is already clear that parents will have to agree the pattern of leave with their employers, failing which they will be able to take the leave in a single block starting on a date chosen by them. A two week discussion period has been proposed for both parties to agree the leave. Employers will have the right to require an employee to take leave as a single period or in separate periods. Parents will have to give employers eight weeks’ notice of their intention to take each block of parental leave and will need 26 weeks’ service. Leave will have to be taken in a minimum of one week blocks.The government has stated that the administration arrangements will be as simple as possible, which means that an employer will not need to liaise with the other parent’s employer. The Government is consulting on employees’ rights when they return to work and it is not yet clear whether they will have the right to return to their old job or a similar job. This may depend on the length of the block of leave taken.
Potential problems for employers
The biggest headache for employers is likely to be an organisational one. If leave is broken into many blocks, it will be difficult to find cover and to keep track of how much leave a parent has taken. Calculating the amount of pay due to employees could also be complicated. The short notice period of only eight weeks may mean employers do not have enough time to find cover. Where the mother and father work for the same employer shared leave could be very disruptive, particularly for a small employer, but at least the employer will know how much leave each parent has taken unlike where they work for different employers. There is currently no easy way for employers to monitor leave and minimise fraud. What happens if one parent’s employer agrees the leave but the other parent’s employer does not? We do not yet know the answer to this question. Finally, it is unclear whether an employer will need a good reason for rejecting a request for leave.
These proposals are radical and employers will need time to prepare for them. You will need to amend your maternity and paternity policies and consider how you will deal with requests for shared leave, as well as preparing the letters and forms that you will need to use. The new law is intended to promote equality in the workplace, but will only succeed if fathers opt to take up their new rights; where the father earns more than the mother, he maybe unlikely to do so. We will have to wait and see how popular these changes are in practice.