Parental leave: is change afoot?

Abigail Maino examines government proposals to reform working parents’ entitlements

Credit: Getty Images

The challenges facing working parents are not new. In July 2019, the government consulted on various proposals to support families. Fast forward to June 2023 and the government published its response to the last part of the consultation.

What was the consultation about?

The consultation was split into three chapters:

  1. Parental leave and support

  2. Neonatal leave and pay

  3. Flexible working and family-related leave and pay

In respect of the second chapter, the government has introduced the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023, which comes into force in April 2025 and will provide parents with a right to 12 weeks’ leave and pay if their baby requires neonatal care, which is in addition to their existing parental leave entitlements.

Seeking to address the third chapter, it has also passed the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023, which will come into force on a date to be announced. This will increase the number of flexible working requests employees can make to two per 12-month period, remove the need for the business case to support their application, require employers to consult with an employee before rejecting the application and make the decision within two, rather than three, months of the request.

That left only the parental leave chapter to respond to. After four years, employers may have been forgiven for expecting some bold announcements, particularly given the stated aim of achieving greater equality in parenting and at work. If that were the case, they may have been left feeling slightly underwhelmed by the proposals. 

Parental leave developments

The government has stated that in future legislation (the timing of which is unclear) they will:

  • Give employed fathers and partners more choice and flexibility around how and when they take their paternity leave. They will be able to take the current entitlement of up to two weeks of leave in two separate blocks of one week of leave if they wish.

  • Give employed fathers and partners the ability to take their leave at any time in the first year, rather than just in the first eight weeks after birth or placement for adoption.

  • Change the notice requirements for paternity leave to make these more proportionate to the amount of time the father or partner plans to take off work, to give parents more flexibility in planning to take the leave that they need.

Given one of the aims of the consultation was to look at ways to encourage more fathers to take an active role in childcare, providing a bit of flexibility to the two weeks of paternity leave is not groundbreaking stuff. 

Shared parental leave, introduced in December 2014 for parents of children who were due to be born or placed for adoption from 5 April 2015, was designed to give families more choice and flexibility over who cares for their child in the first year. The scheme enables mothers (and adopters) to transfer maternity (and adoption) entitlements that they do not intend to use to the father or their partner/joint adopter.

However, take up of the scheme has been low and the complexities around eligibility have been seen as a barrier to its uptake. To try and address this, an online tool was introduced in June 2021 to allow parents to check if they are eligible for shared parental leave and pay, and plan their leave. Anecdotal evidence suggests this has not resulted in any significant rise in take up.

The future of parental leave

Despite the aims of the consultation, the UK lags behind other countries when it comes to equality of childcare. This issue requires more than some flexibility in when to take two weeks of paternity leave or the introduction of an online tool. It requires bold reform to change ingrained attitudes in the workplace and society as to the gender divide in childcare. 

As new generations enter the workplace, attitudes and expectations about equality and flexibility are changing. Unfortunately, the government’s proposals for parental leave are modest. Businesses can of course choose to do more, but budget constraints and competing priorities are likely to make it a rare employer that goes further than its legal obligations. 

Abigail Maino is an employment lawyer at DMH Stallard