Flexible working for flexible parents

Workingmums.co.uk asked Jo Swinson, a minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who leads on women’s equality in the workplace, to give a detailed explanation of the new shared parenting plans and to talk about the Government’s approach to employment rights and flexible working.

Workingmums.co.uk: Do you think shared parenting can make a real difference for women in the workplace?

Jo Swinson: Absolutely. Our proposed new system of Flexible Parental Leave will allow mums and dads to choose how to share leave after baby is born. This challenges the assumption that the mum always does the lion’s share of caring, and that dad only has a secondary role to play.

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Allowing men and women to retain a strong link to work after the birth of their child will create a more balanced and equal labour market, reduce the need for women to drop out of the workforce for long periods following childbirth and could have a positive impact on the gender pay gap faced by women. One of the aims of the proposals is that women will face less of a ‘career penalty’ which results from taking an extensive period of time off after child birth.

Employers will be better able to retain fantastic women in their organisations – increasing women’s participation in the labour market.

Workingmums.co.uk: Employers are concerned about the practicalities of preparing for short periods of leave under shared parenting, but they also complain about the lengthening of maternity leave to one year. Do you think you have found a happy medium?

JS: Women will continue to be entitled to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, as they are currently. However, an eligible woman with an eligible partner may choose to end her maternity leave early and they can both opt in to the shared parental leave system. We think this will offer families and employers a lot more flexibility than is currently available. Employers do not have to accept patterns of shared leave that won’t work for their business, but they will not be able to veto the amount of leave that an employee wishes to take, or the start date of this leave. We expect that in most cases employers and employees will have constructive conversations that will help parents combine their new caring responsibilities with their career.

Workingmums.co.uk: How will the blocks of leave work?

JS: Parents will have much greater flexibility about how they ‘mix and match’ their leave. They may take the leave in turns or – importantly – take it together, provided that they take no more than 52 weeks combined in total and the leave is taken in blocks of at least a week.

For example, the mother could take the first eight months, with the father taking the remaining four months; or the mother could return to work for a period in the middle of the year with the father taking care of the child at that time; or the parents could choose to both stay at home together with the child, for up to 6 months.

Once the parents have decided to opt into the shared parental leave system and have indicated how they want to divide the available leave between them, each parent then has a statutory right to take that period of leave accruing to them. They will need to notify their respective employers on an official form how much leave each employee will take and then agree a pattern of leave with the employer.

Employers do not have to accept patterns of shared leave that won’t work for their business, but they can’t veto the amount of leave that an employee wishes to take, or the start date.

For example, the employee may propose a period of time and a pattern of leave starting on a specific date (such as 6 weeks taken on alternate weeks between 1 April to end June). The employer can refuse the pattern of leave. The employee is then required to take the 6 weeks of leave in a continuous block, but may specify the date on which it will start. The employee may choose 6 weeks starting on 1 April, or may pick another date if that suits them better.

Workingmums.co.uk: Is the Government planning any initiatives to encourage dads to take up shared parenting as the experience of organisations around parenting issues is that dads have to be specifically targeted about the benefits?

JS: We plan to ensure that the new entitlements are fully publicised to prospective parents, and we will work with family groups in delivering that. In addition, by explaining to mums through organisations such as yourselves how the system will work for them, we hope we will get the message out. We know that loads of dads are currently frustrated about how little time they get to spend with their newborn child, and will welcome this move to enable them to be more actively involved in the early months of parenting.

Workingmums.co.uk: Will shared parental leave still be calculated on the mother’s average pay at 26 weeks?

JS: Mothers will still have a day-one right to 52 weeks of maternity leave, and, subject to their employment history, 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance. Eligible parents (or the mother and her partner) can opt into the flexible parental leave and pay system once the woman decides to end her maternity leave. The balance of untaken leave and pay will become available for them to share as flexible parental leave and pay.

The balance of pay will convert to flexible parental pay. So the maximum amount of flexible parental leave available for the parents to share is 50 weeks (37 weeks of which will be paid, the remaining unpaid). Flexible parental leave will be paid at the lower of 90% of salary or the statutory flat rate which is currently £135.45 a week.

Workingmums.co.uk: We are getting a lot of questions into our legal experts from women who appear to have been discriminated against on maternity leave, often blatantly so. Government proposals, e.g. on the employee-owner scheme appear to be watering down employment rights for some employers. Is an economic crisis when many people are worried about losing their jobs the right time to do this?

JS: Maternity discrimination is never acceptable and unscrupulous employers should not think they will get away with it. Everyone – including employee shareholders – will continue to have protection from discrimination including during pregnancy and maternity. The Government is committed to supporting economic growth and we believe that giving employers’ choice with this new employment status will help businesses to grow.

Employee shareholders will still be entitled to maternity leave and pay as other employees; the only difference is that they will need to give their employer 16 weeks’ notice of their intention to return early from maternity leave, compared to 8 weeks notice for an employee.

Workingmums.co.uk: Could the Government take more action to tackle discrimination?

JS: The Equality Act 2010 makes it absolutely clear that discriminating against women because they take up their maternity leave employment rights is unlawful discrimination. Anyone who is concerned they may have been the victim of such discrimination should contact the Pay & Work Helpline on 0800 917 2386/ ACAS at www.acas.org.uk or on 08457 47 47 47.

Workingmums.co.uk: While the move to extend the right to request flexible working is welcome, does the fact that flexible working legislation is included in the employee-owner scheme not send the message to employers that it is not in their business interests to implement flexible working and that it is potentially a burden rather than a benefit?

JS: The Government is committed to promoting flexible working to businesses and employees because of the benefits of flexible working to employers. No doubt for this reason many employers will be keen to operate flexible working policies, even for employee shareholders who won’t have a formal right to request it. It’s important to note that even though employee shareholders won’t have the statutory right to request flexible working, this does not mean that employee shareholders won’t be able to request flexible working. Employee shareholders will have a vested interest in the employer’s success by virtue of their shares in the business and will therefore be more willing and likely to request flexible working informally with their employer if the change is beneficial to the business.

Workingmums.co.uk: Do you have any plans to do more to spread good practice on flexible working? We have just held our Top Employer Awards and a main aim of this is to spread good practice to employers of all sizes.

JS: Let’s be clear, this is a right to request, not a right to have. Business can and should say no if they can’t accommodate the change. But a British Chamber of Commerce’s survey shows that 89% of small businesses already provide at least one form of flexible working. The project you are undertaking to promote the benefits of flexible working for smaller businesses sounds excellent, and is exactly the kind of initiative that can encourage other employers to embrace a culture of flexible working. This right to request flexible working gives employees the confidence to ask their employer for flexible working without fear of detrimental treatment. Evidence shows there are great benefits for business. Not only does flexible working create a productive and motivated workforce, it also saves employers money from reduced absenteeism and lower staff turnover costs, and allows them to retain highly skilled staff.

This is why the Government is supporting an excellent initiative ‘Engage for Success’, where top companies are coming together to share best practice on matters like flexible working and promote employee engagement – you might like to have a look at the website – www.engageforsuccess.org.

Workingmums.co.uk: Could the Government provide more support for these employers so that they can get the most out of flexible working rather than implement it on an ad hoc basis?

JS: Alongside extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, the Government is working with employers and their representatives to promote the benefits of flexible working to employers. The Department for Work and Pension’s Private Sector Working Group, chaired by Sarah Jackson of Working Families, is developing a strapline for employers to use on job adverts to encourage candidates to discuss their flexible working needs at interview.

Lloyds Banking Group chair the Employers Group on Flexibility and are developing the business case for flexible working, to encourage employers to use flexible working to improve their profitability.



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