The government has this week announced reforms to parental leave provision allowing parents to choose how to share care of their child in the first year after birth. The idea is that women should face less of a “career penalty” for taking an extensive period of time off.

It has also announced an extension to the right to request to work flexibly to all employees, which is currently only available to parents with children under 16 and carers. In addition, the current statutory procedure for considering requests will be replaced with a duty on employers to consider all requests in a “reasonable” way and businesses will be able to refuse requests on business grounds.

The government plans to legislate next year and will introduce the changes to flexible working in 2014 and to flexible parental leave in 2015.

The parental leave proposals state that:

  • Employed mothers will still have a guaranteed 52 weeks’ maternity leave if they want it
  • Mothers must take at least two weeks maternity leave (four weeks for manual workers) after the birth of a child as a recovery period if they intend to share their leave with the father
  • Working parents can share the remaining 50 weeks of maternity leave as parental leave
  • Mothers and fathers can opt into the flexible parental leave system at any point from the initial two week recovery period after birth
  • Parents will be required to provide a self-certified notice of their leave entitlement to their employers
  • Parents will be expected to give their employers eight weeks’ notice of their intention to take flexible parental leave
  • There will be a new statutory payment for parents on flexible parental leave, with the same qualifying requirements that currently apply to statutory maternity and paternity pay
  • Fathers will have the right to take unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments
  • Statutory paternity leave to remain at two weeks (although this is under review)

Responding to these plans, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

“The reforms announced today will make it easier for parents to choose how they want to share their leave to look after newborn children. It's great that parents who want to adopt will be given more support too.

“Allowing all staff to ask to work flexibly is common sense to good employers. But we know that too many businesses are still reluctant to modernise working practices so the government is right to give them a nudge with this new universal right to request flexible working.

“These reforms will make life easier for millions of working parents. Businesses will also benefit from a more engaged workforce and a larger pool of people to recruit from.”