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Sir Richard Branson was in the media in September last year for announcing he was letting his employees take as much holiday as they wanted as long as they got their job done. Employers can chose to give more than the statutory minimum of 28 days holiday, but giving complete free rein is taking it to the extreme and surely asking for trouble. Now Sir Richard has been at it again; this time allowing his male employees to take a year of paternity leave on full pay. Some say he is being a very generous employer. In our office we think it is just another publicity stunt.

The move will put male employees at Virgin on an equal footing with women who take maternity leave. There are a couple of catches. Employees must have been with Virgin for four years in order to receive 100 per cent of their salary whilst on leave. This will be pro-rated with those who have less than two years’ service receiving 25 per cent of their salary, though it is likely that this will still be more than the statutory rate. Secondly, the offer will only be available to management in the investment and brand licensing part of Virgin. This means that fewer than 150 of Virgin’s 50,000 employees will be eligible to take advantage of the leave. Clearly this is a policy that is not as generous as it first sounds.

The announcement comes about two months after the introduction of shared parental leave which caused changes to paternity leave. The statutory entitlement to any leave after the birth of a child is now as follows.

A mother is entitled to 52 weeks statutory maternity leave. She must tell you at least 15 weeks before the expected week of childbirth that she is pregnant, when the baby is due and when she wants to take her leave. You cannot refuse maternity leave or change the amount of leave she wishes to take. She must take at least the two weeks after birth as maternity leave. If she has at least 26 weeks service at the 15th week before childbirth and earns at least £112 per week, she may also be entitled to receive maternity pay. These are statutory minimums which can you can enhance.

An employee who is a father or husband / partner of the mother is entitled to two weeks paternity leave. To qualify an employee must have at least 26 weeks service at the 15th week before childbirth. To qualify for pay he must meet these criteria and additionally earn £112 per week. Again these are statutory minimums which you can enhance. If you enhance maternity pay you should also enhance paternity pay otherwise you may find yourself with a discrimination claim on your hands.

A father may be able to take more leave by opting for shared parental leave. To do so a mother must end her maternity leave and both parents must then opt to take it. Whatever leave the mother has not yet taken can then be shared between the two parents. The parents can take leave together or separately, sharing also the rest of any pay. Each parent qualifies separately for leave and pay.

Although much has been made of fathers taking a more active role in the baby’s first year of life, it’s expected that only about 7% of couples will opt for shared parental leave. Talking to a pregnant woman recently (a highly intelligent individual, I might add) she asked about the new right so I explained a bit about it. She was very brisk: “This will stress both parents and the baby,” she said. “It simply won’t work”. I know that employers are dreading it, but I hadn’t thought of it like that and upon reflection I can see her point.