Shared parental leave for small businesses – the legal view

Three advisers and a business owner give their opinion on the proposed shared parental leave initiative.

Gagandeep Prasad, senior associate, Charles Russell LLP

The Children and Families Bill 2012-13 was recently introduced in the House of Commons to implement, among other things, the government’s family friendly proposals contained in its recent consultation on modern workplaces.

One of the new introductions in this bill is the system of shared parental leave which has attracted a lot of press coverage recently. Under this new system, an eligible mother will continue to have the right to receive the existing 52 weeks’ maternity leave from the start of her maternity leave. After the initial two weeks compulsory maternity leave period, the mother can then choose to end her leave early and share the remainder of it with her partner. The new system includes new statutory payments for parents on shared parental leave who meet the same qualifying requirements that currently apply to statutory maternity and paternity pay.

On the face of it these changes are interesting developments but it remains to be seen how many partners actually do share their parental leave. In some work environments, and in the current economic climate, the option of shared parental leave may not be a realistic prospect.

Andrew Crudge, solicitor, Thomas Eggar

The government’s plan to allow parents to share maternity/paternity leave is a welcome development. However, the way in which parents could divide up this shared leave is ill thought out and damaging to business. The provisions will allow parents to request to alternate their time off in small successive chunks, returning to work between each.

This would create a huge burden for employers, most of which would struggle to cover these intermittent absences. Employers will be able to turn down requests to alternate leave in this way, but such a refusal could cause unnecessary friction with employees. It would have been far better to simply require leave to be taken in one continuous block.

This is frustrating because the concept of shared parental leave itself is sensible. Parents should have the right to decide whether the mother or father (or both) will take parental leave. But the entitlement to successively alternate time off does not bring equality and creates an unnecessary burden for employers.

Kate Russell, HR expert, consultant and author

The government’s latest proposals offer shared parental leave and pay to give parents more choice and flexibility in how they share the care of their child in the early stages following birth. While this may be helpful for new parents, I do question how workable this will be for business, especially small employers. 

To what extent will an employer be able to plan and pay for maternity leave cover in the future? At present, an employer knows that an employee on maternity leave will be away for a maximum of 52 weeks. This isn’t always easy to prepare for but the proposal for shared periods of time means that parents will be able to take some leave, return to work, then take more leave, will make planning far less straightforward.

For example, if you have a specialist role which takes some months training to enable a temporary staff member to cover maternity leave effectively, what will you be expected to do if the employee on maternity leave elects to take the time off in several periods of absence, returning to work in between times? Will there be exceptions, can you object or will employers just have to put up and shut up?

The courts have made it very clear in the past that business convenience comes a very poor second compared with the needs of the family. The detail as to how all this is going to work does not yet exist and presumably will follow in the regulations. In addition, the government proposes that all employees will have the right to request to work flexibly.

How this will work is not yet clear. Will the right for all employees to request to work flexibly have the effect of neutralising some or all of the effect of flexible working requests for family (unlikely I would have thought) or will there be classes of flexible working requests, some getting priority treatment? The employers’ Gordian jigsaw puzzle is likely to get more complicated and there’s scope for considerable confusion and – demotivation – if this is ineptly handle. The government will have to be very careful in the way in which it seeks to implement these proposals.

Charlie Mullins, managing director and founder, Pimlico Plumbers

This new shared parental leave system is ludicrous. It will simply create nothing more than piles of extra red tape for businesses already struggling in the current economic climate, and I suspect will not help the very parents it claims to be able to benefit. The changes are completely unnecessary, will mean added costs for everyone, including the government, will prove difficult for employers to administer and put into practice, and at a time when many are worried about keeping their job. Most fathers I have spoken to don’t even want it!

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Parental leave

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