Government to consult on flexible parental leave
The Government today launched a consultation on plans to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave from 2015.
Under the proposals, once the early weeks of maternity and paternity leave have ended, parents will be able to share the overall leave allowance between them. The Government says the leave could be taken in a number of different blocks and both parents could take leave at the same time.
Women could take their 18 weeks' maternity leave and pay in one continuous block around birth. Each parent would then be able to share the next 30 weeks of additional parental leave - of which 17 weeks would be paid and can be broken in blocks between parents. Both parents would then be able to take an additional four weeks of parental leave each.
The plans will extend the right to request flexible working to all workers who have been with their employer for 26 weeks. The Government will consider publishing a statutory Code of Practice for businesses. It will propose that employers should be allowed to take into account employees individual circumstances when considering conflicting requests. There are no plans to alter the current eight business reasons for a business to turn down a request. The Government says it recognises that legislation is not the only answer to promoting flexible working practices and says non-legislative measures are being developed to promote flexible working opportunities both for those with a job and for those looking for one.
On equal pay, the proposals would ensure that Employment Tribunals that have found an employer to have discriminated on gender in relation to pay can order the employer to conduct a pay audit and publish their results (except in some circumstances, such as where an audit has already been conducted).
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “Our proposals will encourage greater choice by giving employees and their employers the flexibility to find arrangements to suit them both.
"New parents should be able to choose their childcare arrangements for themselves, rather than being dictated to by rigid Government regulation as is currently the case. And employers should be encouraged to come to agreement with employees on how work and family responsibilities can be met simultaneously.
“These measures are fairer for fathers and maintain the existing entitlements for mothers – but crucially give parents much greater choice over how to balance their work and family commitments.
“Of course I’m mindful of the need to minimise the costs, bureaucracy and complexities on businesses. This has been at the forefront of my mind throughout the development of our proposals. So we will ensure that businesses will still be able to take into account their needs when agreeing how leave can be taken. But I’m also confident that we have a good case to make on the wider benefits to business - not least from a motivated and flexible workforce and we will be making this case to employers over the next few years before these changes are introduced.”
Gillian Nissim, founder of Workingmums.co.uk, said: "Workingmums welcomes plans to consult on extending the right to flexible working to all employees. We believe that flexible working benefits both employees and businesses and allowing all employees to apply for it will counter the perception among some that it is simply as a perk for working parents.
"We are also interested in the plans to extend shared parenting. One of the big issues for working mums is that they end up doing a double shift as they still do most of the domestic work. If dads were more involved in childcare from the early days this could encourage greater equality both at home and at work."
Jackie Orme, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, welcomed the consultation and said the extension of flexible working was "overdue". She said: "It is simply not possible for influential voices in the business lobby to be, at once, firmly in favour of getting more women on to boards and closing the gender pay gap, as I am; against crude instruments such as quotas and compulsory pay audits, as I also am; but simultaneously against light-touch measures to support change to cultural norms that force able women to make choices between careers that fully utilise their talents and their roles as parents. These are choices that men are not traditionally required to make in the same way. Although that fact is beginning to change, the inflexibility of existing maternity regulations and the way they support cultural norms acts as a brake on progress.
"Successive reviews of the impact of male dominated, monocultural boards on business performance and the intractable gender pay gap have concluded the problems are multiple and complex, and that long-term cultural change is required. Done right, these proposals offer the prospect of removing state-sponsored obstacles to those already noticeable long-term cultural changes, in a way that levels the playing field for talented, ambitious, successful women who also choose, with their partners, to become parents. "
She added that, while the CiPD broadly supported the proposals in the consultation, it retained some concerns about the workability of some of the details, for instance, it believes parents should be required to take leave in reasonable blocks of time - no shorter than two weeks - "if the employer is not to be subjected to unreasonable burdens". It is also concerned about unnecessary bureaucracy that might be associated with the administration of the proposals and wants to ensure employers are given adequate notice of parents' intentions.
Changing working culture
Working Families Chief Executive Sarah Jackson said: “Making flexible working more widely available will change working cultures and benefit families. Parents find it easier to ask for changes where flexibility is the norm. We warmly welcome the proposed extension of the right to request flexible working.
“We welcome further reform of parental leave arrangements and in particular more rights for fathers. Evidence suggests that ‘shared leave’ is used by mothers, so a use-it-or-lose it month for fathers should stimulate take up. We welcome the proposal that parents could use their leave to work part time to ease the return to work after a new baby is born. This would benefit employers too if employees return to work sooner, but on a less than full time basis.
“It is disappointing that there is little in the consultation paper for low income fathers. Apart from independent rights, it is adequate wage replacement that encourages fathers to take time out. Forty per cent of fathers we surveyed don’t take their two weeks of paternity leave now – the majority because they can’t afford it. If the Government are serious about making Britain family-friendly, they need to improve access to parental leave by paying it properly."
She added that Working Families' new research on dads shows fathers who work flexibly report better physical and psychological health, are less stressed, are more committed to their employer and enjoy better relationships with their colleagues. Fathers whose partners work full time and those who claim to do more than their share of housework also report significantly higher levels of well-being.
Anna Bird, Acting Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said: “The plans unveiled today have the potential to revolutionise the way work is structured in the UK. The Government has set the bar high: we could see Britain become a world leader when it comes to parental leave and flexible working, with common sense and progressive policies that work for both employees and employers the norm not the exception."
She expressed concerns, however, that SMES should not be exempt and about the proposals for tackling unequal pay. "We are less confident specific plans announced today around gender audits will make much difference, " she said. "Unfortunately it is only once an employer is found guilty of discriminating against a women that they will be required to take action to close their gender pay gap- a strategy that yet again places responsibility with the employee to bring forward a successful claim rather than requiring the employer to ensure that they are acting lawfully."
Business leaders, including the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have expressed concerns about the impact on business given that the plans extend parental leave by another four weeks.