The Government's lose-lose situation over parental leave

The proposed new parental leave rules are admirably progressive in principle - but could be a nightmare for businesses in practice.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
It's fair to say the Government's proposed reforms to parental leave rules have received a very mixed reception. And that's hardly surprising. On the one hand, the underlying principle - of allowing parents to divvy up leave after the birth of their children, so the 'burden' of childcare can be shared more equally - is an admirable one, and will surely help to reduce gender inequality in the workplace. But in providing employees with greater flexibility, the Government is also saddling business with greater uncertainty, complexity and cost. And this is not a great time to be making it harder or more expensive to do business...

The underlying argument is surely a hard one to dispute: that if we're serious about trying to get more women on boards and resolving the stubbornly high gender pay gap, we need to think not just about direct discrimination, but also about the cultural factors that make it more difficult for women to progress. And we'd argue that the current maternity rules - insofar as they entrench traditional gender roles by placing a much greater burden on the mother, while only allowing men a measly two weeks' paternity leave - are at least part of the problem. So giving parents more freedom to choose how they manage their childcare sounds like a progressive move.

The Government has already changed the rules once: as of April, men can now take up to six months of any unused maternity leave if their partner chooses to go back to work early, on top of their two weeks' paternity leave. But now Vince Cable and co are proposing to go further: men will now get an extra month of paid maternity leave in the first year of the baby's life, while there will also be an additional 30 weeks that parents can divide up between them (17 of which will be paid). The new rules would kick in by 2015.

Although some business groups have welcomed the broad thrust of the proposals, they're unhappy with two things in particular. One, this will mean that the total amount of leave per family increases from 54 to 58 weeks, despite the UK already having one of the most generous deals around. And two, the fact that those additional 30 weeks can be broken up and used in chunks. The theory seems to be that this will be good for all concerned, because it will allow staff to pop back in at times of peak demand without losing their entitlements - but the prospect of people coming and going, with all the HR and administrative hassle that would involve, will sound horribly unappealing to employers.

The Government has made some concessions on this latter point: it's proposing that companies should have power of veto if the arrangement seems too disruptive, forcing staff to take leave in a single block. And on the broader point, it argues that the arrangement will benefit employers in the long run, because it will result in happier and more engaged staff.

That's probably true - but at a time when companies are fighting tooth and nail to stay afloat, the last thing they need is more short-term hassle and expense. A case of the right idea at the wrong time? Or a nettle that needs to be grasped? It's hard to know.

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