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Flexible parental leave is announced in the Queen’s Speech.
The Queen outlined plans for a Children and Families’ Bill under which mothers in England, Scotland and Wales will be able to transfer some of their maternity leave to their partners, sharing the 52 weeks off after the birth of a child.
Also outlined were plans to speed up the adoption process and to make race considerations less important. There will be more choice in education for children with special needs and the law will be strengthened to ensure children whose parents separate maintain a relationship with both parents if that is in their best interests.
In addition the Speech set out plans to cut back “red tape” and overhaul the workplace dispute resolution system through a “more efficient and streamlined tribunal system for all users” which emphasises early conciliation.
Campaign groups have expressed concern that, under flexible parental leave, the presumption will be that women should return to work 18 weeks after the birth of their babies. They are calling for this to be extended to 26 weeks.
Working Families Chief Executive Sarah Jackson said: ”We want to see more choice and flexibility for fathers to share the care, and more paternity leave would be a great step forward. But the Government consulted on cutting maternity leave to 18 weeks which is a step too far. Pushing women back to work too soon will bring hidden costs to employers. There’s still time for the Government to change their minds and guarantee six months for mums.
“We’re disappointed that there was nothing about extending flexible working rights in the Queen’s speech. Good employers already offer flexible working to all their employees because they know that it leads to high performance and reduces costs. We urge the Government to include an extension of the right to request flexible working in their programme to boost economic growth and help everyone get the work–life balance they need.”
Ceri Goddard, the Fawcett’ Society’s Chief Executive, said:“We welcome the government’s commitment to levelling the playing field when it comes to parental leave entitlements for women and men. The spirit of proposed reforms recognises that current working practices are holding back progress in tackling the gender pay gap and delivering greater workplace equality for women.
“Current working practices rely on outdated ideas about the way families care for children. Dramatically different leave entitlements for mothers and fathers when a child is born mean many families – who thus far might have had fairly equitable arrangements in the home – find themselves forced to conform to old fashioned ideas about breadwinner and carer roles.
“The Government’s Modern Workplaces consultation, due to report soon, contained some radical ideas about ensuring Britain’s workplaces are fit for the 21st century which we warmly welcomed. However, the plans include reducing the amount of ring fenced maternity leave to 18 weeks – a step with many unintended, dangerous consequences for women’s maternal health and access to continued secure, quality employment. If the Coalition are serious about delivering on their ‘family friendly agenda’, the Bill will ensure both mothers and fathers have access to reasonable, and well paid, leave entitlements to care for their families. As a minimum, women should be entitled to 26 weeks of ring fenced, paid maternity leave to avoid risks to their health and to protect family incomes.”
She added that she was concerned that Government plans to cut back “red tape”, for instance, around unfair dismissals, could “all too easily mean scaling back on equality”.
She said: “Considered against a 25-year high in women’s unemployment, watering down these kinds of regulations poses a very real threat to women’s ability to get and keep work. A healthy labour market cannot exist if women are not enabled to take their rightful part in it.”