By Kim Wager
What do parents currently get, and why are we changing it?
From April next year, the Coalition Government will deliver on its pledge to encourage shared parenting by introducing a new entitlement to shared parental leave for working parents. The new system will enable an eligible woman to end her maternity leave and pay early and allow her and her partner to share up to 50 untaken weeks of maternity leave and 37 weeks of untaken pay or allowance to care for their child in the year following birth. Shared parental leave and pay will also be available to the parents of an adopted child in the year following adoption.
Current maternity provision is rigid and prescriptive, reinforcing the notion that childcare is primarily a woman’s responsibility.
Additional paternity leave was introduced in 2011 to help this, but it only allows a father to take the remainder of the leave once a mother goes back to work, is capped at 26 weeks, and can only start when the child is at least 20 weeks old.
Shared parental leave means that an employed father (or mother’s partner) can become a child’s primary carer for the first time without having to leave his (or her) job. It will provide a much greater level of flexibility and will enable families to combine work and caring responsibilities in a much more flexible way, allowing the family to be at home together for a period from the time of the birth, if that is what suits them.
What is changing and when
There will be no changes to maternity leave and pay. All employed women will continue to be entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. All eligible fathers or partners will continue to be entitled to 2 consecutive weeks of paternity leave. Shared parental leave and pay will replace additional paternity leave and pay for the parents of babies due on or after 5 April 2015.
What is shared parental leave and pay?
An eligible couple can opt into shared parental leave and pay if the woman ends her maternity leave and pay or maternity allowance early – either by returning to work or by giving binding notice to bring her maternity leave and pay to end on a specific date. The amount of unpaid maternity leave and pay will be available to the couple as shared parental leave and pay.
To be eligible for the new system, an employee must meet a “duration of service” test (having worked for the employer for 26 weeks at the 15th week before the child’s due date). Essentially they will have to have been working for the same
employer since before the child’s conception. In addition, they will need to have a working partner with whom they will be sharing the care of the child.
What are we doing to make this easier for employers?
The shared parental leave and pay system will give employees much more flexibility in how they take leave. However, employees will need to give their employer sufficient notice over what they are doing and when.
Any periods of absence on shared parental leave will need to be booked by the employee at least 8 weeks in advance. When booking leave, it can be for a single continuous period or for different blocks of weeks. An employee is entitled to take the weeks in any continuous period, but an employer may require discontinuous weeks to be taken in a single block. There will be cap of 3 opportunities for an employee to book leave (including changes to previously booked leave), so no employee could take more than 3 separate blocks of leave if the employer does not allow it.
This will be a significant change to the way that parental leave rights work. Both mothers and fathers (or a mother’s partner) will now be able to take periods out of the workplace in the first year of a child’s life. Employers with a high proportion of female employees can look forward to their employees taking shorter periods out of work when they have a baby. This means that valuable employees with specialist skills don’t have to be counted out for a full year when they become pregnant.
Also, employees don’t have to take the leave all in one go, as they do for maternity leave or additional paternity leave. So if an employer has a big project or a peak period, like the Christmas rush, they can ask their employee whether they would like to come back to work to cover that period. At the moment, even if a mother wanted to come back for a short period half way through her maternity leave, she couldn’t without giving up the remaining leave permanently.
The new shared parental system will modernise the leave and pay available to parents in that vital year following birth or adoption.
Kim Wager from the Labour Market Directorate at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills will be giving a presentation discussing Shared Parental Leave at the the Managing Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave conference on the 11th March.