In the UK, fathers are currently entitled to up to two weeks’ paternity leave after the birth of their child (and up to a further 26 weeks if he takes up the mother’s unused maternity leave), with a statutory entitlement to pay at the lower of 90% of weekly earnings or £138.18. Mothers, on the other hand, are entitled to maternity leave totalling 52 weeks with statutory maternity pay (as above) for up to 39 weeks. The historical reasoning behind the difference in treatment between the mother and the father is down to biology and apparently has nothing to do with the prime ‘bread winner scenario’ – it’s more the idea that the mother has carried the baby for 9 months and that there are specific things that the baby needs from its mother e.g. breast milk.

However, as work culture has changed substantially in recent years, the amount of women taking higher powered jobs, or even just wanting to stay in work, is increasing and the government wants to support this.

Things are due to change again in 2015, when the idea is that parental leave will become more flexible and can be shared between both parents, giving the father the opportunity to play a bigger role in the early years of their child(ren)’s lives as well as giving the mother the opportunity to keep up to date with work. Who needs to choose between a stay at home Mum or Dad when it can be both!

According to the plan, the first two weeks following the birth of the child will continue to be compulsory leave for the mother, for biological reasons, and the father will remain entitled to up to 2 weeks leave as is currently the case.  But after that the remaining paid weeks (up to the existing cap of 39 in total) and parental leave weeks (up to the existing cap of 52 in total) can be split between the mother and father, and in discontinuous blocks if agreed. The choice of the split will be down to the parents and their employers (though if an employer refuses discontinuous leave requests and a pattern of leave cannot be agreed, the leave will have to be taken in one continuous period).

The idea is that women who want to keep on track with their careers are able to split time off with their partner/husband so that they too can carry on working. Equally, the father gets to be there to see his child smile and giggle for the first time, crawl, walk, start talking, (not to mention getting involved in nappy changing), whilst having an extended eligibility for statutory pay so they can continue to support their family at least to some degree.

Benefits for mothers and fathers, but what about employers?

Well, there is a risk of discrimination claims. As stated, traditionally the mother has been entitled to the leave because of her biological role in looking after the child. Now the government has decided that both parents should have an equal opportunity to spend time with their child.  But any policy that gives enhanced pay to mothers but not to fathers could be seen as discriminatory. If a father taking shared parental leave is not able to benefit from the equivalent of any enhanced maternity pay his employer offers to mothers, he could bring a sex discrimination tribunal claim. Some employers may be considering removing the entitlement of mothers to enhanced pay, so as to avoid any such allegation of unlawful discrimination. An undesirable potential side-effect of what is designed to be family-friendly legislation.

However, despite some historical and cultural expectations that women should be taking time away from the work place, the new system could be a positive for employers. Especially where women play a highly important part of a team.

A report from the BBC supports the view that employers too can gain from the system as it will allow them to keep talented women in the work force, as the father will now be able to take time off to look after the child, whilst the mother will be able to remain skilled and up-to-date in the work place. Enhancing shared parental pay could also encourage more fathers to take time off.

Not only does the current system mean that fathers miss so many first moments of their child’s life, it is also arguable that the traditional model of the woman taking more time off is outdated, as now more than ever, women are being recognised for their contribution in the work place.  The new legislation can only encourage this further.

For more information please contact our employment team on 0161 930 5151

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