By Naomi Owen

As we approach the holiday season, the focus of many is on spending quality time with family. On 13 November, it became apparent that the Government is also turning its attention to such family values.

Earlier in the month, the Deputy Prime Minister announced proposed changes to legislation to provide a more family-friendly approach to assist working families. In his address, Mr Clegg highlighted the relatively low rate of female employment, with women finding themselves “locked out of the labour market”. 

The key question is “when women take a break from work to have children, how do we give them a route back?” whilst attempting to redress the balance between fathers missing out on their children’s early years, and mothers being forced to compromise on their career aspirations.

Following the Coalition’s promise to address this unsatisfactory pattern recurring so frequently in the modern working family, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published its Consultation on Modern Workplaces in May 2011. The Consultation remained open for 3 months, following which the Government took time to compile its response, which was released on 13 November.

The response assures us that there will be no change to the length of available maternity leave, currently 52 weeks (with a maximum of 9 months at statutory pay). Fathers will also retain their right to 2 weeks’ paternity leave and pay.

The crucial change comes in the way in which those 52 weeks can be spent. If a new mother chooses to return to work prior to the end of her 52 week maternity period, her and her partner will now be able to share up to a maximum of 50 weeks untaken maternity leave as flexible parental leave, to be divided between them as they see fit. These new reforms will apply equally to adoptive parents, meaning that some of the current discrepancies will be remedied.

There is however some limit on this new found freedom: parents will need to meet the “qualifying criteria”, although it is envisaged that these criteria will not differ much, if at all, from the current criteria for maternity and paternity pay, allowance and leave. Further, despite this supposed freedom, it remains the case that the boss has the ultimate say-so in the matter, as the reforms require that any proposed timetable for leave be agreed with both parents’ employers.

Future fathers may be somewhat upset that the Government is yet to address the issue of extended paternity leave, with indications that this matter will be considered in a review currently scheduled to take place in 2018. However, fathers may be appeased by the new legal right to take time off to accompany their partners to two ante-natal sessions.

The changes will be implemented by way of the proposed Children and Families Bill, with the reforms taking effect from 2015. In the meantime, let us see if the Government considers these family values really are for life, and not just for Christmas.