Shared parental leave: wishful thinking?

18 January 2011

Yesterday, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, outlined the Coalition Government’s proposals to overhaul shared parental leave, claiming that the current “Edwardian” rules “patronise women and marginalise men”.

As of this April, the Coalition will implement changes agreed by the last Government. This means that if a mother returns to work before the end of her maternity leave entitlement, the father will be able to take up the remaining time, up to a maximum of six months. And there are plans to go further than this. The Government is launching a consultation on a “new properly flexible system of shared parental leave” that it aims to introduce in 2015 (Mr Clegg made it clear that he would have liked it to be sooner). One idea being considered is allowing parents to share the overall leave allowance – paid or unpaid – between them “in a whole range of ways”. Leave could be divided up as couples see fit. Both parents could be off work at the same time, and leave could, in agreement with employers, be taken in number of chunks, rather than one single block. Mr Clegg also stated that the Coalition Government “commits to a universal right to request flexible working”. He explained this meant that the Government hopes to extend flexible working rights beyond mothers and fathers to, for example, grandparents and close family friends.

But what about the employers of these proud new parents? Mr Clegg stated that “we need to work with businesses to make absolutely sure that, from their point of view, the new system is sustainable and affordable. And that ultimately, leaves British companies benefiting from a happier, more productive workforce.”

The CBI said it is backing the policy. Katja Hall, director for employment, said “we support moves to make parental leave more flexible. This will help families better balance their work and home life.”

The British Chamber of Commerce, BCC, and The Institute of Directors, IoD, were less welcoming of the proposals. David Frost, director-general of the BCC feared the plans would simply burden business with more red tape and could deter firms from taking on new staff. An IoD spokesman said “our current system of maternity leave is already difficult and costly for firms – particularly small and medium-sized enterprises – to operate. If employees were given the opportunity to take leave in short blocks, the system would become virtually unmanageable”.

The Government’s motivations for these reforms are commendable (equality between men and women and supporting good parenting). However, it seems that the ministers have not properly thought through the implications for business and there is a real danger that, if employers’ warnings are not taken into account, the scheme will prove a costly and administrative nightmare for businesses. In addition, for most families, managing with the mother’s maternity leave means cut backs on spending and potentially taking on extra debt, especially in the current economic climate. The suggestion that father and mother will be able to take extended leave at the same time, to bond with new baby together, is unlikely to be anything other than wishful thinking for the majority of families.

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