We’re all Scandinavian now – the countdown to shared parental leave

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Last year, a significant number of Icelandic fathers used their entitlement to three months off work on 80 per cent of their salary. In Denmark, new parents can share a year of paid leave. In Sweden, shared parental leave was first introduced in 1974. Here in the UK, the Government has now confirmed the framework for shared parental leave which comes into force in April 2015. The overall policy is simple. As is often the case however, the devil will be in the detail (yet to be confirmed) of how it will all actually work in practice.

The Government’s recent announcement followed an eight-month consultation process and the response can be viewed here.

The thinking underpinning the scheme was summarised by the Deputy Prime Minister as a need to: “challenge the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the parent that stays at home – many fathers want that option too“. The Business Minister, Jo Swinson, commented in the same vein: “We want to shatter the perception that it is mainly a woman’s role to stay at home and look after the child and a man’s role to be at work. Employers too can gain from a system which allows them to keep talented women in the workforce and have more motivated and productive staff.”

Under the new scheme, mothers will be able to commit to ending their maternity leave and pay at a date in the future with the intention of sharing the untaken balance of leave and pay with their partner. Qualifying earnings and length of service criteria will apply and each parent must meet these criteria in their own right. Leave must be taken in a minimum of one week blocks.

The key points from the consultation response can be summarised as follows:

  • Mothers who give binding notice to opt into shared parental leave prior to giving birth will have a right to revoke the notice up to six weeks following the birth
  • When employees initially notify their employer of their intention to take shared parental leave they must give a non-binding indication of when they expect to take their allocated leave but will be expected to give at least eight weeks’ notice of any leave they will actually be taking
  • There will be a limit on the number of times a parent can notify the employer of taking a period of shared parental leave. The number of notifications will be capped at three – being the original notification and two further notifications or changes
  • Changes that are mutually agreed between the employer and employee will not count towards this cap
  • The cut-off point for taking shared parental leave will be 52 weeks following birth (or adoption)
  • Each parent taking shared parental leave will have up to 20 days to support them in returning to work (akin to keeping in touch days). Parents will be able to use these days to return to work from shared parental leave on a part-time basis for a limited time.
  • Employees returning from any period of maternity, paternity, adoption or shared parental leave of a total of 26 weeks or less in aggregate will have the right to return to the same job even if the leave is taken in discontinuous blocks. Any subsequent leave will carry the right to return to the same job, or if that is not reasonably practicable, a similar job
  • The notice periods for paternity leave and pay will be aligned to the end of the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth.

The provisions, contained in the Children and Families Bill 2013, are currently going through Parliament and the exact details of how the new system will work will be set out in regulations yet to be published. Employers have raised concerns about the obvious logistical and communication challenges of sharing blocks of leave between two parents employed by two different employers. The draft regulations and associated guidance will need to address this and specify the processes in detail.

In addition, the response does not clarify the thorny question of whether employers who currently provide enhanced maternity pay will, in order to avoid sex discrimination claims, need to mirror this entitlement for men taking parental leave.

It is clear that shared parental leave will be a complex area for HR to grapple with and employers should keep this topic on their radar in readiness for 2015.

Extension of Flexible Working Rights – April 2014

From April 2014, the right to request flexible working will be extended to cover all employees who have been with their employer for 26 weeks or more.  his will significantly widen the pool of people who can request changes to work patterns. For example, it will cover the growing numbers of older workers who may wish to or need to work flexibly in order to care for grandchildren or, indeed, those who are just seeking a better work/life balance. The current statutory ‘right to request’ procedure will be replaced with a duty on employers to deal with requests in a reasonable manner and within a ‘reasonable’ period of time. A statutory code of practice and non-statutory guidance will be prepared to sit alongside these new rules and give guidance to employers.

Whether this change to the law will result in a ‘flurry’ of flexible working requests remains to be seen but it is certainly likely that more requests will be made overall so employers should be prepared. We recommend that existing flexible working policies and procedures are updated and awareness training given in advance of the changes.