Santander is “ahead of the game” in offering shared parental leave to its staff prior to next year’s new paternity laws taking effect.

Where both parents of a new child work for the company they will now be entitled to “swap” the last six months of a year-long maternity leave from the mother to the father. The new rule will also apply to unmarried partners, same-sex couples and adoption leave, and is in addition to the current two-week paternity leave entitlement.

Barbara Hobday, head of employee relations and diversity at Santander, said she believed the offering was “unique” among high street banks.

“We like to keep ahead of the game in many areas, and felt this was a key feature to offer in advance of any legal obligations we have to put in place,” said Hobday.

Although the scheme only commenced at the start of this month – so the company is awaiting the first uptake – Hobday said the initiative had been well-received by the workforce, and she was optimistic about the level of interest the scheme would generate.

The right to apply for shared parental leave forms part of Santander’s Passport to Parenting range of staff benefits, which the company launched last week.

The benefits package also features a workplace nursery partnership, the provision of confidential health information for parents-to-be from pregnancy charity Tommy’s, and a flexible children’s savings account with up to £40 credit for each baby born to an employee.

The banking giant, which has recently integrated with Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, now employs 24,000 staff in the UK, 60 per cent of whom are women, said Hobday.

“We’ve been in detailed discussions with our unions about how we integrate terms and conditions across the three heritage brands, and believe all the elements in the proposition form a very positive offering,” explained Hobday. “It really sets out the values we have as an employer in terms of work-life balance, talent management, retention and employee engagement.”

She added that the children’s saving account idea was developed from an initiative at the banking firm’s Portuguese arm, which sends gifts to staff who have become new parents.

To celebrate each baby born to an employee, Santander will reimburse the first £40 paid into an account opened in the new arrival’s name, then contribute £20 on the child’s fifth, 10th and 15th birthdays, as long as the parent is still a serving member of staff.

“Investing in families is a key part of engagement,” continued Hobday. “Offering a diverse range of benefits for people at different stages of their lives enables us to retain and attract key talent into Santander.”

From April 2011, all fathers will have the right to request to share the maximum one-year maternity leave period with their partner. If a new mother returns to work after six months, the father can take the remaining six months’ leave on the qualifying terms – three months of statutory pay and three months unpaid.