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Consultation over changes to parental leave, flexible working, equal pay and working time

30th May 2011
A new consultation paper has been published setting out the proposals for a new system of shared parental leave and extending the right to request flexible working to nearly all employees. However, the proposals cover a range of other measures.

The Government has launched the consultation paper under the title of "Consultation on Modern Workplaces". The consultation period will run until the 8th August 2011.

Currently there are regulations that allow for employees to take "parental leave". This can be taken by the mother or father of the child, but is unpaid. These regualtions are quite distinct from the regulations (and rights) to maternity leave and paternity leave. At the moment paternity leave is only paid for a short period, either one or two weeks. Maternity pay extends for much longer, but of course can only be taken by the mother of the newborn child. The maternity leave period that can be taken is currently 52 weeks.

Under the new proposals the first 18 weeks of the maternity leave period will remain available solely to the mother. The remaining weeks will then be reclassified as "parental leave". The proposal is that the second period of leave, the "parental leave " period, can be taken by either the mother, father or split between both. The proposal is that 4 weeks of this "parental leave" period will be allowed exclusively to the father, 4 weeks exclusively to the mother, with the balance being capable of being divided between them. 

The existing right to 1 or 2 weeks paid "paternity leave" will remain under these proposals. In addition, the existing right to unpaid parental leave beyond the first year of the child's life wioo be incorporated into the new proposed scheme.

New proposals under the consultation on the subject of parental leave include extending the limit on taking unpaid parental leave past the child's fifth birthday, and the possibility of giving fathers the right to take unpaid leave to attend ante-natal appointments.

On the subject of flexible working arrangements the consultation proposes that the right to request flexible working arrnagements be extended to cover nearly all employees. The service requirement would be 26 consecutive weeks of  employment. Currently the flexible working regulations only extend to covering the parents of children, and carers of dependent adults. In addition the regulations now only permit one application for flexible working to be made by any single employee in any 12 month period. The consultation paper seeks views on whether or not to allow an additional request in that period if the original request stated that it was only expected as a temporary arrangement.   

Turning to the topic of equal pay, the consultation proposes introducing a duty on employers to conduct a pay audit if they have been found by an Employment Tribunal to have discriminated on the grounds of sex with regard to pay. There would be limited grounds on which such an audit would not be ordered under these proposals.

The suggested changes to the Working Time Regulations suggest limiting the possibility of carrying over from one holiday year to the next where the employee has lost holiday due to sickness absence, maternity or parental leave. The proposals include enabling employers to insist that an employee that has lost some holiday due to illness takes that holiday entitlement in the current holiday year.
The Government aims to legislate on flexible parental leave, flexible working and equal pay changes as soon as possible in the current Parliament, and introducing the changes to the Working Time Regulations- on paid holiday being carried over -in the course of 2012.

The current provisions on the rights of employed parents are complex. It will certainly be welcomed if new regulations consolidate them, but only if they make it easier for individuals and employers to understand and implement them. Employers will however be cautious about regulations that provide for the splitting of the current paid maternity leave period. This process will be highly dependent on employees being honest over their leave plans and giving reasonable notice of those plans to their respective employers. In addition it will depend on the ability and willingness of employers to co-ordinate the splitting of the paid leave period between the mother and father, as most couples are employed by different employers. 

At Hallett Employment Law Services we can help both employers and employees understand their obligations and implement the necessary procedures. If you require assistance on any matter raised in this article please do not hesitate to contact us.   
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