As anticipated in our blog of 19 October, the Government has now announced changes to the current rules on parental leave which will allow parents to share leave rights after the birth or adoption of a child from 2015.

The new rules will mean that from two weeks after birth (the period of compulsory maternity leave) parents will be able to swap the remaining 50 weeks maternity leave entitlement between them, with the father potentially able to take the full 50 weeks while the mother returns to work.

If the mother has notified her employer in advance that she wishes to return to work early, both parents could take leave concurrently provided that the aggregate leave does not exceed 12 months (of which a total of nine months will be paid leave).

Leave must me taken in blocks of at least a week – so it could not be used, for example, to support a period of part-time work for one or both parents.

In addition to shared parental leave, fathers or partners will be granted unpaid leave to attend two ante-natal appointments, and adopters will be given the same rights as other parents.

Where parents have a child through a surrogate and meet the criteria to apply for a Parental Order, they too will be eligible for statutory adoption leave and pay and for flexible parental leave.

Anyone claiming parental leave in any of these situations will need to qualify in their own right (e.g. have at least 26 weeks continuous service).

Note also that the existing entitlement to take unpaid parental leave will be extended from 2015 onwards, increasing from 13 weeks to 18 weeks leave to look after a child up to the age of 18 years (currently only up to the age of 5).

While these rights represent a significant extension of the entitlements of working parents, the Government has also announced that the right to request flexible working will be extended to all staff, not just those with children or who are carers for dependent adults. This will apply to businesses large and small.

At present there is a statutory procedure which must be followed where a request to work flexibly is received. This will be removed, and employers will instead be under a duty to deal with requests reasonably and within a reasonable period of time.

ACAS have been tasked with producing a Code of Practice on what is meant by reasonable. They will also offer guidance on the relationship between requests for flexible working and the effect of discrimination laws. Equality considerations are very important when considering requests for flexible working arrangements, whether you are dealing with working parents, staff with disabilities, older workers or those with caring responsibilities. The extended rights will also allow staff to ask for a different pattern of work to allow for religious observance, for example.

The proposals must be seen against a background of two competing themes, first a desire to reduce regulation for businesses (which is potentially the reason why the changes will be delayed until 2015), and second a commitment to extending parental rights and flexible working. For working parents, the new proposals represent not only an extension to their rights but also a more equitable division of entitlements between mothers and fathers. It will bring an end to the current situation where a same-sex adopting couple had to choose who would take maternity leave and who would take paternity leave. Balanced against these rights is the increased ability of all staff to seek flexible working patterns. Generally, flexible working has been well received by employers. It offers greater options in times of a weak economy and, some would argue, can stimulate growth and productivity.

How the proposed changes will be perceived in practice remains to be seen.

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