Family-friendly laws: blessing or burden?

Mother holding a baby

The rules concerning leave for new parents have been overhauled several times with the aim of making it as flexible as possible for parents. All employees with 26 weeks' service are entitled to request flexible working arrangements and new parents can now opt to share flexible parental leave. But will it be small-business owners who are left carrying the cost?

What are the rules?

  • The right to request flexible working arrangements applies to all employees with at least 26 weeks' service.
  • The statutory procedure for considering flexible working requests has been removed. Employers are now required to consider requests in a 'reasonable manner'. Employers can still turn requests down on business grounds.
  • New mothers are entitled to share their leave in any way they choose.
  • A new mother is still required to take at least two weeks off following the birth of her child (four weeks if she does manual work) in order to rest. After that, she can choose to end her maternity leave and share the remaining 50 weeks' leave and up to nine months' statutory pay with the father/her partner.
  • Parents can share the leave and take time off at the same time or in turns providing no more than 50 weeks are taken in total between them.
  • New parents must give at least eight weeks' notice of their intention to take flexible parental leave.
  • Men are entitled to take unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments.
  • Employees that lose a child under the age of 18 or suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy are entitled to take one- or two-weeks' parental bereavement leave. Eligible parents can claim statutory pay.

Andrew Downie{{}}Andrew Downie, managing director of Swansea-based NetBop Technologies: "As we only have a handful of full-time employees, it will obviously have an affect on our productivity if someone requires paternity leave.

"But unlike other reasons for taking time off work, such as ill-health, paternity leave is something that can be planned many months in advance and, if necessary, additional assistance drafted in - whether it be a self-employed contractor or via a recruitment agency."

Hayley Chalmers{{}}Hayley Chalmers, managing director, Short Couture online fashion retailer, believes that the rules could cause irreparable disruption to a small business. "Trying to replace a person on leave could be expensive - not just in paying the salary, but in agency fees and time spent recruiting and training the person. When the original employee returns after many months, there is a period of relearning. The people left at the company are picking up the slack and this can cause bad feeling."

Fiona Humberstone{{}}Fiona Humberstone, managing director of Guildford-based Flourish: "Rob, my senior graphic designer, took paternity leave when his baby was born, but his initial two-week paternity leave turned into seven weeks off as the baby came early and was very ill.

"As an employer and a mum myself, I knew the baby had to come first. But it did have a big impact on the business, especially as we're a small team and the absence was unforeseen.

"The main problem was simply getting through the work without Rob. It wasn't just the money issue - how do you find someone of the calibre you have within your team with no notice? We'd planned to cope for two weeks, so it was just the unknown of the extended leave that was difficult. We didn't want to let quality suffer, which meant that of course we couldn't be as productive and therefore that month wasn't as profitable. But, there was very little red tape."

Paternity leave rules: the legal view

"Fathers' rights have been extended so they can effectively step into the mother's shoes for the second half of her maternity leave with the same level of protection and the same level of statutory pay," explains Kathryn Fielder, senior associate of the employment department at BP Collins.

"There is relief for both Statutory Paternity Pay and Shared Parental Pay for small firms, which are able to recover 100% of that payment from HMRC via their National Insurance contributions.

"However, businesses will have to prepare for the possibility that fathers may be absent from work for up to a total of 28 weeks, which will be the real issue. Of course it does remain to be seen how many fathers will take up their rights."

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