Are you prepared for shared parental leave laws? » SMEInsider

Are you prepared for shared parental leave laws?

Laws that will give new parents far more flexibility in sharing maternity and paternity leave between them will come into effect on 1st December – but many SMEs have not yet begun to put updated policies in place.

At present, new mothers are entitled to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, 39 of which are covered by statutory maternity pay, and which includes two weeks of recovery time that must be taken off following the birth of the baby. New fathers are also entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave at the time of the birth and, if the mother decides to return to work after 20 weeks, are able to take a further 26 weeks’ paternity leave then.

Under the new shared parental rules, which will apply to babies born after 5th April 2015, this will change entirely. After the first two weeks that new mothers must take off for recovery, the following 50 weeks of leave, and 37 weeks of statutory pay, can be shared between the mother and father however they wish. This includes taking time off at the same time, provided that not more than 50 weeks are taken off in total between them – and employers will have the right to insist on a single continuous period of leave rather than numerous smaller chunks that would require erratic cover.

These rules will apply to all working parents (including adoptive parents) who have spent a minimum of 26 weeks in their role and will take a responsibility of care for their new child. Requests must be agreed with employers with a minimum of eight weeks’ notice.

At present, the UK government predicts that only around 4% of men will make use of the SPL option in its first year of existence, but this is likely to rise quickly. In countries where similar measures have been introduced, such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, take-up began slowly but soon shot up, with around 90% of Swedish men now taking paternity leave.

While maternity leave is considered commonplace, and more men are taking time off through paternity leave, the new system looks likely to usher in a new era of expectation from both men and women in the workplace,” said Sarah Gilzean, associate at the law firm HBJ Gateley. “While initial forecasts for take-up are low I expect to see a marked rise in numbers as more couples see the benefits of sharing the care of their new baby while balancing work commitments.

Gilzean also points out that managers will need to take care that they are not seen to be making the process harder for fathers than they would for mothers. “Employers who currently pay enhanced maternity pay will also have to decide whether to pay those on shared parental leave the same enhanced rate or stick with the statutory minimum.  Failing to pay an enhanced rate could bring the risk of a sex discrimination claim from fathers on shared parental leave comparing themselves to mothers on maternity leave.”

Ultimately, says Gilzean, from 15th April, “more organisations will be asked by male workers to take extended periods of time off to look after their children. For employers the challenge will be to prepare for an increasing level of demand while still retaining business continuity.”