Government announces plans on flexible parental leave and flexible working

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In responding to the Modern Workplaces consultation, the Government has confirmed that it will be introducing a new system of flexible parental leave and an extension to the right to request flexible working, to take effect in 2015 and 2014 respectively.

The Modern Workplaces consultation was launched in May 2011 and covered four areas: introducing a new system of flexible parental leave; extending the right to request flexible working; updating the Working Time Regulations; and introducing further measures to promote equal pay. See EEF's response to the consultation in August 2011.

The Government has yesterday published responses to the flexible parental leave and the flexible working aspects of the consultation. The main points are summarised below.

See the Government consultation response documents.

New system of flexible parental leave

The Government has announced a new system of flexible parental leave, to take effect from 2015, compromising the following key elements:

  • 52 weeks of maternity leave will remain in place as the default position.
  • Women with partners where they both meet the qualifying conditions (to be fully determined) for the flexible parental leave system can opt to end, or give notice to end, the mother’s maternity leave and to take up to 50 weeks of the untaken balance of maternity leave as shared flexible parental leave.
  • The untaken balance of leave can be shared flexibly between the parents, e.g they may take it in turns or at the same time, provided that they take no more than 52 weeks combined in total.
  • Leave must be taken in a minimum of one-week blocks.
  • The parents can decide how much leave they will both take but they need to agree their individual pattern of leave with their employer. If the parties cannot reach agreement, the employee will be entitled to take their leave in a single block starting on a date specified by the employee.
  • Statutory flexible parental pay will be paid to the parent(s) at the same rate as flat rate statutory maternity pay (SMP) and cannot exceed the untaken balance of SMP.
  • Paternity leave will remain at 2 weeks and additional paternity leave and additional statutory paternity pay will be abolished.

Extensions to the right to request flexible working

As expected, the Government has decided to proceed with the extension of the right to request flexible working. This will take effect from 2014 and the key elements are:

  • Extending the right to all employees.
  • Replacing the current statutory procedure for considering flexible working requests with an ACAS statutory code of practice imposing a duty to deal with requests in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable time period.
  • ACAS best practice guide for employers, including guidance on definition of “reasonable”, how to handle temporary changes to working patterns and how to prioritise conflicting requests when received at the same time.
  • Retention of the 26 weeks qualifying period of continuous employment and the limit on one flexible working request in any 12 month period.

Other measures

Unpaid parental leave

The current system of unpaid parental leave will remain. However, the following changes are to be made:

  • To implement the European Parental Leave Directive, the number of weeks of leave will, from March 2013, increase from 13 to 18 weeks per parent per child.
  • The current age limit up to which the leave is available will, from 2015, be extended from the child’s 5th birthday to the child’s 18th birthday.

Antenatal appointments for fathers

From 2015, a new right will be created allowing fathers, and partners of pregnant women, to take unpaid leave to attend two ante-natal appointments.

Adoption leave and pay

The following changes will, from 2015, be made to the adoption leave regime to bring it in line with maternity leave:

  • Length of service criteria for adoption leave will be removed, so that that it becomes a “day 1” right.
  • The first 6 weeks of statutory adoption pay will be paid at the rate of 90% of the primary adopter’s salary.
  • Adopters will be able to opt into the flexible parental leave system, if they meet the qualifying conditions, in the same way as birth parents.

Next steps

The Government is currently envisaging the following timetable for the above changes:

  • Early 2013 – Consultations on administrative details of new flexible parental leave system and on ACAS statutory code of practice for handling flexible working requests.
  • March 2013 – Increase in number of weeks of unpaid parental leave.
  • 2014 – Implementation of extension of right to request flexible working.
  • 2015 – Implementation of flexible parental leave and pay, age limit for unpaid parental leave, antenatal appointments for fathers and changes to adoption leave and pay regime.

EEF comment

We believe that our member companies already offer flexible working arrangements to their employees. We see flexible working as a two-way street, helping employees balance out their lives inside and outside of work and helping employers secure commitment and flexibility from their workforce. In our view, the legislation on extending the right to request flexible working is unnecessary, although we welcome the Government's attempt to make the process simple.

We can see some advantages in giving parents the flexibility to share parental leave, as it will allow some mothers to return to work earlier and may help increase women's participation in the workplace. However, the key issue for us is ensuring that shared parental leave is straightforward and avoids significant additional costs for employers and problems with covering absences. This will include employers receiving sufficient notice of employees' absence on parental leave; companies have increasingly specialist skill requirements and usually will need longer than the current 8 weeks to arrange cover for employees taking a significant period of leave. We will continue to lobby on these issues during the consultation on administrative arrangements due to take place in the new year. In the meantime, if you have any immediate comments, please contact Beth Unwin, Principal Legal Adviser, at bunwin@eef.org.uk or Tim Thomas, Head of Employment Policy, at tthomas@eef.org.uk

We will also be holding a series of seminars covering this topic early next year. Please look out for details.

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