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Flexible parental leave law must be employer friendly, HR expert warns

Justine Vaughan, Founder and Director of Triangle HR

A Shropshire HR consultancy has welcomed plans to introduce flexible parental leave – on the proviso that the proposals don’t place an unworkable administrative burden on local businesses.

Justine Vaughan, Founder and Director of Shrewsbury-based Triangle HR, has backed the Coalition Government’s moves to encourage flexible working practices, but warned any shake-up must be simple for employers, especially smaller firms, to implement.

Earlier this week [Tuesday 13th November], Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg unveiled plans for a major overhaul to the laws regarding parental leave, which from 2015 would see both parents entitled to share up to a year’s leave after the birth of a child.

At present, new mothers are able to take a full 52 weeks off, nine months of which will be at statutory pay, while fathers are entitled to two weeks of statutory paternity leave of their own. Under Mr Clegg’s proposals, which are aimed at reversing the ‘clapped out rules’ he claims act as a barrier to women getting back into the workplace, the mother will take the first two weeks off after birth, with parents then being able to divide up the remainder of the maternity leave as they see fit, even taking time off together if they wish.

“This is a very forward-thinking initiative, particularly when taking into account the increased number of female entrepreneurs who run their own business, or who are actually the main ‘bread winners’ in their family,” Justine Vaughan commented. “However, the devil will very much be in the detail, and it’s essential that such changes are introduced in a way that will be fair to both the employer and the employee. Whereas parents will be given the right to take advantage of this greater flexibility and choice, it’s essential they are as open and honest with their employers as possible, to enable the appropriate cover to be scheduled. It’s also crucial that safeguards are put in place to prevent fathers from taking legal action seeking the same rights as mothers.”

As well as the overhaul to parental leave rights, which will also see parents who adopt children given the same legal protections as biological parents – a move that could benefit around 4,000 families – Mr Clegg also announced his intention to extend the legal right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees, not just those with children or dependents.

“Again, this is a positive move, but similar to the case of flexible parental leave, one where great thought needs to be given to the practicalities. Many employers already adopt a culture that embraces flexible working practices such as working from home, job sharing, and flexi-hours, and they see the benefits such an approach can bring, including improved staff morale, increased commitment and engagement from workers, and the ability to recruit and retain top talent. In fact, research shows that extending flexible working will actually lead to a net benefit of £222.5 million to employers through increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and sickness.

“But for firms where this attitude isn’t yet commonplace, imposing flexible working arrangements simply through legislation could lead to an administrative nightmare, especially for smaller businesses,” Justine concluded.

In addition, the Deputy Prime Minister delayed plans to extend paternity leave until 2018 at the earliest, due to the current economic climate, but signalled the government’s intention to give fathers the legal right to take unpaid leave to enable them to attend two antenatal appointments.

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