From 5 April 2015 rights to generous time off work following the birth of a child will no longer be the preserve of women. Now, thanks to new government regulations, men will be able to take on a larger role - if they want to - in bringing up baby.
The regulations will allow couples to share up to 50 weeks of parental leave during the child's first year provided Mum agrees to shorten her maternity leave: the amount of shared parental leave is less any period of maternity leave taken by Mum (excluding the two-week compulsory period which Mum has to take).
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Providing greater flexibility for couples to balance and manage childcare is at the heart of the new regime which allows both partners to take time off at the same time, at different times, or for one partner only to take the full entitlement of 50 weeks parental leave. Furthermore, parental leave - provided it is taken in blocks of at least one week - can be taken in one long block or staggered over three blocks during the year. If the employer is agreeable it could even be taken in a greater number of blocks with an employee swapping in and out of work throughout the year.
Shared parental leave is in addition to the two weeks paternity leave already available to men. It might therefore be used to allow Dad to spend more time with his child in its first few weeks. However, the decision on how to share the leave will for many couples involve weighing up the finances and deciding on how best to co-ordinate and combine maternity leave with shared parental leave. Shared parental pay is paid for up to 37 weeks all at the flat rate of £138.18, which is the same flat rate as maternity pay. However, if Mum earns more than her partner, then Mum might return to work early with the partner taking shared parental leave to look after baby.
Also, the extent to which employers decide to offer workers enhanced shared parental pay - perhaps to mirror enhanced maternity pay arrangements already in place - will undoubtedly have a bearing on a couple's decision on whether, how and when to take the leave. If an employer currently offers enhanced maternity pay, the Government says there is no requirement to also offer enhanced shared parental pay but there is precedent from the European Court that suggests otherwise.
The Government's estimated take-up of the shared parental leave scheme is between 2% and 8%. However, if Mum is only entitled to statutory maternity or shared parental pay, whereas Dad (or Mum's partner) can access enhanced shared parental pay, then financial considerations might lead to a greater uptake in shared parental leave by men than the Government is currently predicting.
The long-hour, high pressure culture of the City and elsewhere will also have a bearing on the level of take-up. Some men, for instance, might feel uncomfortable discussing pre-natal appointments around the water cooler, never mind requesting time off from their employer to attend them. But, says Neil Maclean of law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn, "The rules protect the employee from being treated detrimentally as a result of requesting shared parental leave. If eyebrows are raised or comments are made to him (or behind his back) that wouldn't be made about a woman taking leave, then there is a real risk of sex discrimination claims.
"We would encourage employers to prepare for the changes well ahead of April 5, when the practical implications of the new rules kick in. And while a thorough review of employment and benefits policies now will not make the rules any less complex, they will mean that the employer is ready to comply with them in time."
Are you eligible for shared parental leave?
The couple must still be employed when they take the leave and have 26 weeks' continuous service 14 weeks before the baby is due, satisfy minimum earnings criteria, and have shared responsibility for caring for the child. In the latter respect the partner can be the mother's husband, partner (who lives with her and the child), civil partner or the child's father. The new rules apply only for babies due on or after April 5, 2015.
Maclean says "this is potentially the most significant change to our family leave arrangements since maternity leave was first introduced in 1975. Initial take- up is likely to be low but the new rules will help to continue to develop a greater involvement by men in the early years of their children's lives. When I was born in the 1970s my Dad was pacing up and down outside the delivery suite but by the time my children were born during the last decade, people would have thought it strange (and I probably would have been divorced) if I had not been present at the birth! It's not therefore such a large step for Society to see more men take a greater responsibility for the care of our children and these new rules at least provide a legal framework that would make this easier."
This article was written by Neil Maclean, Partner, Head of Employment at Shepherd and Wedderburn