Holding The Baby: The Move Towards Flexible Parental Leave
Last week, Nick Clegg announced at an event for think tank Demos that the Coalition Government would be consulting on and introducing a new system of flexible parental leave for workers. He described the two weeks paternity leave provided to new fathers at present as “paltry”, and that the current rules “patronise women and marginalise men”. He may well have had a point.
In November 2010, 13.49 million (46.4%) of the UK workforce were women. This included 7.6 million women in full time employment. In addition, only last month the Office for National Statistics confirmed that the gender pay gap had dropped by 2%, the biggest single drop since the measure was first produced in 1997. As the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, this is far from the view of life that mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners.
As we reported in our Employment Update Election Special in April last year, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats had stated in their manifestoes that they were committed to improving flexibility for working families. From April this year, fathers will be able to use up to six months of the mother’s maternity leave after the mother has returned to work (which must be after 20 weeks). The father would effectively pick up where the mother left off in respect of any statutory maternity pay (SMP), paid at the usual rate.
But Clegg and co have made it clear that this is not enough. The Lib Dems’ original proposals in the lead up to the election included a whopping 19 months of parental leave which could be shared between the mother and the father. Whether business groups and the Tory element of the coalition will allow that to happen remains to be seen, but Mr Clegg clearly has plans to open the doors for more men to take time off to care for their children.
It is clear that the proposals will include a protected period for women in the first months following childbirth. It is generally accepted that this will be necessary to protect the health and welfare of new mothers, encouraging them to recuperate and bond with their child rather than return to work. Thereafter, it may well be that any period of maternity leave (whether this will be the 12 months currently available or an extended period) will be shared between parents how they see fit and could be taken in separate chunks rather than a single block. Leave for fathers may be provided on a “use it or lose it” basis to encourage take-up of the right.
Business groups were quick to complain that such changes will make workforce planning impossible, adding a disproportionate administrative load and causing employers headaches when attempting to arrange cover. The Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce claimed that the proposed changes would be “too difficult for small businesses to deal with” and may discourage new jobs being created at a time when increased employment is desperately needed.
In his speech to Demos, Nick Clegg did add that any new system must take into account the needs of employers and must be simple to administer. But the Institute of Directors complained that the current system was difficult enough to operate, leaving little chance that any new rights extended to fathers would make things easier for businesses. It is likely that any reforms will take a number of years before they come into force, and businesses will be hoping that any rights will include a fair period of notice to allow them to plan ahead.
As the gender pay gap decreases and more women take up highly paid jobs, these changes will become more relevant. Women who are the higher (or only) earners for their families will be thrilled by the proposals after years of tough decisions about when to return to work. It is likely that in the first few years elements of existing stigma and pay discrepancies between men and women will limit the amount of leave taken by fathers, but society is clearly moving away from the hunter-gatherer mentality and towards balanced family lives, regardless of gender. While it is clear the law needs to move in the same direction, Mr Clegg will need to strike his own balance between parents and businesses. Time will tell which of these groups truly wears the trousers.
- STShampstead: I’m too pretty to work: Science graduate claims good looks forced her out of job: http://t.co/nXEKtSgFef #ukemplaw #hr #equality