Parental leave pitfalls ahead

SPEAKING at a Demos event on contemporary parenting, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that the current “Edwardian” parental leave regime is based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners, with parents not having the flexibility that they need.

The Government’s aim is to introduce a new system of parental leave, which would allow mothers and fathers more flexibility to share time off after a baby’s birth and help balance their work and family commitments.

Women are currently entitled to up to one year’s maternity leave, 39 weeks of which is paid. Fathers can take up to two weeks’ paternity leave (at �125 per week) within eight weeks of the birth.

From April 2011, the position changes. When a baby is born after April 6, 2011, the mother will be able to transfer the second half of her year-long maternity entitlement to the father, if she wants to return to work from maternity leave early.

Under the new proposals, which would take effect from 2015:

n Mothers would still be guaranteed the first six weeks off after birth, paid at 90% of their pay, while fathers would retain their existing two weeks’ paid paternity leave;

nThe remaining parental leave, likely to be 46 weeks, could be shared between parents as couples see fit;

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nRather than having to take leave in one go, the parents could take it in separate chunks;

nThere could also be an additional “use it or lose it” entitlement for fathers, to encourage take- up of the entitlement.

Whilst the principles will generally be commended, there are some considerable hurdles. From the parents’ perspective, if the father’s salary is the main source of income, not many families will be able to afford him taking time off on paternity pay rates.

For employers, if a woman on maternity leave can take her leave in chunks, it will make maternity cover extremely difficult, if not impossible, to organise. Finding temps prepared to work for intermittent periods could result in employers struggling to find cover at all.

Even if they can, it will be more expensive, if agencies have to be used. If the parent returns after a month but then takes another chunk of time off a month or so later, for example, the employer is going to have to recruit and train someone afresh.

Also, how will employers be able to check the truthfulness of an unscrupulous father’s claim that his wife or partner has let him take half of the parental leave?

At worst, some businesses may be tempted to shy away from hiring women of childbearing age, and risk being hit with sex and age discrimination claims.