Will flexible parental leave bring greater equality?
The new flexible parental leave legislation announced in the Queen's Speech is good for working mums because it gives parents greater choice, according to employment lawyer Vanessa Wheeler.
Some commentators have criticised the new legislation – which allows dads to share a woman's maternity leave after the first 18 weeks - saying it will make things more complicated for employers who will find it harder to plan ahead if dads can take leave at short notice.
Vanessa, a lawyer at Setford Solicitors, says that, while the initial changes as with any changes to employment law will be a headache for employers, the aim of the legislation is in fact to simplify existing parental leave laws. “At the moment,” she says, “women have to give 15 weeks' notice of their due date and 28 days notice about when they will start their maternity leave. They can take parental leave with 21 days' notice. Dads too can take paternity leave and currently they can take parental leave with 21 days notice. I can't see why once employers are up to speed with the new regime, the new system would be more difficult than the current one for employers to manage.”
She adds that the overriding principle behind the proposals will be very good for parents because it will be possible to share leave between mothers and fathers. Plus the changes may well assist employers. The current situation is that many women take at least the paid part of the 52 weeks leave so mothers are out of the workplace for 39 weeks. The new regime will mean that some women opt to take less time out of the workplace, and this may well help some employers in managing absence.
She believes that there is a lot of myth-making about the cost of maternity leave to employers which perhaps encourages discrimination against mothers . “Some employers wrongly believe they have to pay Statutory Maternity Pay themselves, and they are unaware they can reclaim most of it back from HMRC," says Vanessa.
"Under the flexible parental leave system, things will be made easier for employers. The Government will administer the payment of what we currently call Statutory Maternity Pay and Statutory Paternity Pay. This should simplify the administration for employers, leaving them merely to manage the parent’s absence from the workplace."
She continues: "The good thing about the proposals are that they give greater freedom to parents whilst mothers still have the option to take the full 52 weeks of leave if they wish, but there will be increased choice for those mothers who want to share leave with their partner."
Some commentators have said it will be difficult for employers to check on whether a man is actually sharing childcare with his partner. Vanessa disagrees. “At the moment, many men take paternity leave when the baby is born and might also take parental leave," she says. "I have not come across any administrative issues with the current regiime. I can’t see why the new regime should cause difficulties. All employment relationships are based on trust. In any event, if an employer suspects an employee is lying it is a disciplinary issue.”
Another potential advantage of the new proposals is that it could mean employers have to start looking at benefits they offer to dads. “At the moment, many dads cannot afford to take paternity leave as the rate of paternity pay is so low and they may be the main earner," says Vanessa.
"Mothers have the buffer of the 90% of pay for six weeks which assists and some employers offer mothers contractual maternity pay. If those employers who currently offer contractual maternity pay to mothers match payments to dads that could be very positive for fathers.
"Dads have a lot to gain from these proposals and in the long term the proposals suggest less red tape for employers.”
She adds that the key to these proposals, if they become law, is that there is good information and support for both employers and employees.