The UK government has announced it will go ahead with plans to allow couples to share maternity leave from April 2011. The scheme offers fathers the chance to take up any leave unused by their partners if they return to work early. The government has also indicated it is considering extending flexibility to other family members from 2015.
Currently, employed fathers are entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave and mothers to 52 weeks maternity leave, of which up to 39 weeks are paid. Employed parents are also entitled to a total of 13 weeks unpaid parental leave until the child’s fifth birthday.
Under the new scheme, mothers will still get the first six months off, but they will be able to share the second six months with their partner. If the mother returns to work, the father will be able to take six months off with half paid at £123.06 (€144) per week.
The plans were decided by the previous UK government, but come into force only in April 2011 to allow businesses time to adapt to the changes. At the time, the former Minister for Women and Equality, Harriet Harman, had said: "This gives families radically more choice and flexibility in how they balance work and care of children, and enables fathers to play a bigger part in bringing up their children."
Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families, said: "This news is good for families, and also good for business. It opens up new choices to many parents about how to look after their newborn child; and by giving fathers new rights at work, it begins to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, which costs the UK so dearly." However, she considered that this flexibility should have been extended to all fathers; not only those whose partners are returning to work, adding, "Experience in other European countries shows that this is what works best, and is most likely to lead to greater involvement with their children by fathers. But until then, this is a good start."
Katja Hall, from the Confederation of British Industry, supported more flexible parental leave but warned that "allowing parents to take ad hoc parcels of leave would make it hard for companies to plan ahead, so we favour parents taking bigger blocks of leave in one go".
The British government also announced that it consulted on introducing further changes to the system in 2015. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the government hoped to extend flexible working beyond mothers and fathers “if we are to dispel the stigma many men, and some employers, still attach to it. By extending flexible leave, for example to grandparents, or close family friends, we hope to make it much more common – a cultural norm.”
He acknowledged the fears among some employers about extending leave rights, saying “clearly any changes need to reflect the difficult economic circumstances we find ourselves in. But it is right that we look at this option as we work through the consultation.
Trades Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber has already given his first impressions, commenting: "The UK has the most unequal parental leave arrangements in Europe so extending the previous government''s shared leave plans is welcome."