Which way now for family friendly employment rights?

9 December 2010

Looking forward to 2011, one of the areas of employment law in which we can expect important developments is “family friendly” employment rights.

The coalition Government has been keen to emphasise its intention to cut red tape and bureaucracy. Ministers have expressed concern on numerous occasions about the impact that employment regulations have on UK business competitiveness, particularly in the vital area of private sector SMEs. We know they hope the private sector, and particularly SMEs, will create the new jobs necessary to replace lost public sector jobs and drive future economic growth.

Therefore you could be forgiven for thinking that many existing family friendly rights could be in jeopardy. Just this week it has been reported that our Employment Relations Minister, Ed Davey, has been in Brussels lobbying against the proposals of the European Parliament for amendments to the Pregnant Workers Directive which would allow new mothers to take 20 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay. (Many employers will be relieved to know that these proposals are facing widespread opposition, not only from the UK Government, so are unlikely to become law in their current form).

However, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are the proud fathers of young children themselves and have consistently communicated the message that they are members of hardworking, modern families in which both parents have demanding jobs. The Conservative and Lib Dem manifestoes emphasised their family friendly credentials. The Conservative manifesto went as far as to say that if elected they would make Britain “the most family friendly country in Europe”. Then the Coalition Agreement contained the vague but intriguing statement that the Government would “encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave”.

Major watering down of existing family friendly employment rights is not realistically in store, but radical changes might be. At this stage, all we can say for sure is that from April 2011 the right to request flexible working will be extended to all parents of children aged under 18, and that at the same time a new additional paternity leave and pay regime will kick in. This is not straightforward, but in summary will allow some fathers to take an extended period of paternity leave of up to six months and to claim additional statutory paternity pay. Employers now have only a short period to prepare for these important changes.

This will be only the beginning because under the recently published Department for Business Innovation and Skills business plan (2011 – 1015) we know that in January BIS are planning to publish proposals on shared parental leave and extending the flexible working regime even further (to cover all employees).

Who knows what exactly a new system of flexible parental leave that encourages shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy could look like? We will have to wait and see. But if we were able as a society to move further towards shared parental responsibility for childcare, even at the earliest stages, and a world in which there is a completely level playing field between the sexes at home and in the workplace, then at long last we might succeed where 40 years of equal pay legislation has failed by ending the gender pay gap.

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