By Naomi Owen

Naomi Owen reviews the proposed reforms to modern workplaces

This is the title that the Government is striving to achieve according to its Response to the Consultation on Modern Workplaces, released on 13 November. The proposed reforms aim to redress the balance within families, between fathers missing out on their children’s early years, and mothers being forced to compromise on their career aspirations. The goal is to enable parents to take ownership of the way in which the first year of their child’s life takes shape. These reforms also seek to address the current bias in the work place, resulting in women finding themselves locked out of their chosen careers when they attempt to return to work after being at home with young children.

The hope is that, in tearing down some of the existing barriers that new parents face, there will be more flexibility not just for mothers and fathers, but also for employers in the way in which they manage their employees. As well as benefitting individuals, it is hoped that the changes will see a smoother return to the work place for talented, ambitious women, thus leading to a more balanced and successful economy.

The reforms will leave intact fathers’ rights to 2 weeks’ leave at statutory pay and mothers’ rights to 52 weeks’ maternity leave (39 weeks of that being at statutory pay). The essential change comes in the way in which those 52 weeks are apportioned: mothers will be able to end, or indicate an intention to end, their maternity leave early, with any remaining leave and pay being taken as flexible parental leave. Practically, this means that couples have the freedom to divide up to a maximum of 50 weeks between them as they see fit, providing that they each meet the “qualifying criteria” relating to earnings and length of service. 

This new freedom allows the biological father, or the mother’s partner, to take leave at the same time as the mother so that parents can be at home together, provided that the total leave taken does not exceed their joint entitlement. These reforms will also apply to adoptive parents, and surrogate parents who meet the criteria to apply for a Parental Order (provided they too can tick the boxes required under the qualifying criteria).

There is however some limit to this new found flexibility: firstly, any leave under this regime must be taken in a minimum of one week blocks, and secondly any proposed timetable for leave must be agreed with both parents’ employers. If the unfortunate situation arises whereby no agreement can be reached, the default position will be that leave reverts to a single block of time to commence on a date specified by the employee.

Other changes include the entitlement for fathers (or partners of mothers, or surrogate parents) to take time off work for 2 ante-natal appointments. The reforms will also see an increase in unpaid parental leave from 13 to 18 weeks from March 2013 in order to comply with the revised EU Parental Leave Directive, with an increase in the age limit on parental leave from 5 to 18 years in 2015 so as to entitle parents to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave for each child under 18.

The changes will be implemented by way of the proposed Children and Families Bill, with the reforms taking effect from 2015. 

Is our Government really the most family friendly in the World? We may wish to reserve judgment for a few years to come.