The Government has recently confirmed its plans to introduce a new system of  ´shared parental leave´, to allow mothers and fathers more flexibility in sharing parental responsibilities following the birth or adoption of a child.

It has long been established that female employees have a right to take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave – and they are required by law to take minimum compulsory maternity leave for the two weeks immediately following birth.

Further, since April 2011, fathers have been able to take advantage of a single period of up to 26 weeks’ additional paternity leave, but only after the baby is 20 weeks’ old and on condition that the mother returns to work.

From April 2015, as an alternative, mothers and fathers will be able to take up to 50 weeks’ shared parental leave between them, either together or separately and, if preferred, in a series of blocks – provided any leave is taken within 52 weeks from birth.

The Government hopes that shared parental leave will “encourage more fathers and partners to play a greater caring role, enable both parents to retain a strong link with the labour market and allow employers and employees greater flexibility in how work and family commitments are balanced”.

In its response to a consultation on the shared parental leave proposals, the Government has given a broad outline of how the system will work:

  • employees must provide a non-binding indication of their expected pattern of leave at the outset and at least eight weeks’ notice of their intention to take a specified period of leave
  • there will be flexibility for employees to change their plans up to twice during the period of leave, provided they give at least eight weeks’ notice. A mother will also have the right to revoke any notice of shared parental leave within six weeks of birth if, for example, she decides to remain on maternity leave instead
  • during shared parental leave, each employee can work for up to 20 keeping in touch (“KIT”) days (in addition to the 10 KIT days available to a mother during maternity leave)
  • an employee will have the right to return to the same job, provided they have not taken more than 26 weeks’ leave in aggregate – otherwise the right is to return to the same job or, if that is not reasonably practicable, a similar job.

The response from many quarters has been very positive, although the proposals have not been universally welcomed. For example, the Institute of Directors has labelled them “unwieldy” and a “nightmare”. This conclusion is, perhaps, a little premature. Although it will affect businesses of all sizes, the true impact can only be assessed once draft regulations are published, setting out full details of how it will operate in practice.

Shared parental leave is certainly a positive move, but the Government must ensure that sufficient support is given to assist employers in administering the new scheme.

There is no doubt that it will assist in addressing inequality in the workplace and could help women to break through the widely publicised glass ceiling. Gender gaps in terms of salary and career progression are often associated with female employees taking time out to start a family.

From April 2015, we may well see more fathers taking extended time off work to allow the mother to return to work earlier, particularly where she is the main earner. This, in turn, could give female employees more flexibility to achieve their career aspirations, without feeling that they have to compromise a family life in order to fulfil work ambitions.

Article by Dominic Holmes, senior associate at international law firm Taylor Vinters, employment lawyer with particular expertise in employment litigation, TUPE, contractual issues and disability discrimination