The proposals, which are included in the Children and Families Bill, currently gong through Parliament, are intended to give parents more choice about how to share the care of their baby, whether they are at home together or work at different times.
Ministers want to encourage fathers to play a greater role in the first few months of their child’s life.
From April 2015, employers will need to offer fathers statutory pay.
The Government consulted on the plans in February and has published its response to the consultation today.
Nick Clegg said, ‘We need to challenge the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the parent that stays at home – many fathers want that option too. That is why from April 2015 we’re introducing shared parental leave to allow couples to make that decision jointly ensuring all career options remain open to women after pregnancy.’
Mr Clegg also said that the plans would help boost the economy.
‘There shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach – that’s not how families are set up. Many businesses already recognise how productive and motivated employees are when they’re given the opportunity to work flexibly, helping them retain talent and boost their competitive edge. This is good for families, good for business and good for our economy.’
The plans will come into effect from April 2015 and will include adoptive parents.
Mothers will take the first two weeks after their baby’s birth as a recovery period of maternity leave but after that parents will be able to choose how they share their leave up to a maximum of 50 weeks in total.
Employees will be expected to give at least eight weeks’ notice of any leave they want to take so that businesses can plan.
Parents will be able to notify employers of their decision to take leave up to a maximum of three times during the year to enable parents to use their leave flexibly but reduce uncertainty for employers.
Working Families welcomed the plans, which she said may support the cultural change to stop maternity discrimination in the workplace, but highlighted that more needed to be done to make it easier for fathers to use their rights to two weeks of paid paternity leave, which currently too few fathers do.
Chief executive Sarah Jackson said, ‘This consultation offered an opportunity to equalise paternity leave and pay notice periods at 28 days, not 15 weeks which could have made it easier for fathers to take paternity leave. Many fathers don’t think about notice until very close to the birth and may miss out on vital family time as a result of the long notice requirements. Many good employers say that 28 days’ notice for paternity leave wouldn’t cause a problem – so who are the Government listening to?’
She added that the law needed to be strengthened to protect parents who take time out for shared parental leave against discrimination.
‘The right to return proposals here are complex and confusing and may not give parents the comfort they need to exercise their rights,’ she said.
Early years organisations welcomed the plans.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘As an organisation that has always promoted the importance of the involvement of fathers in their child’s development, Alliance members are pleased that this is now being reflected in government policy.
‘All too often the term “parent” is associated with the role of the mother, so it is heartening to see that we are moving away from this outdated way of thinking and that the significant role that fathers play in the crucial early years of their child’s life is being fully recognised and valued.’
June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, said, ‘We’re delighted the Government has realised mothers and fathers both need time to bond with newborns, and today’s announcement will relieve some stress from parents juggling work and childcare.
‘We know that the earlier dads are involved with their children the stronger their engagement. We at LEYF will always support policy that strengthens parents’ chances of success.’
But she added that the plan would only work with the ‘buy-in’ of employers to support staff fairly and flexibly, and that it should not negatively impact employees with no parental responsibilities.
‘We need a society that recognises it takes a village to raise a child and that ultimately that is a shared responsibility,’ she said.
Liz Bayram, chief executive of The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) said, ‘We must remember that this commitment alone will not solve the difficult problems for many families across the country, especially those living in disadvantage or within a single-parent household. This is why it is vital that Government also commits to providing improved support for childcare professionals to make sure that families have access to high quality, flexible, affordable care when they go back to work.’
Employers’ organisations gave a mixed response.
John Wastnage, employment adviser at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said, ‘We are pleased that the Government has listened to business and this response appears to offer pragmatic solutions, such as restricting the number of requests or changes to leave to a maximum of three, as this will limit potential disruption for smaller firms. The requirements for parents to provide indicative plans for how they intend to use their leave will encourage early dialogue between employers and staff without reducing parents’ flexibility.’
But the Forum of Private Business, which represents small and medium-sized companies, criticised the government for a lack of coherent policy.
Policy adviser Fionnuala Horrocks-Burns, said, ‘All businesses now accept the necessity of parental leave. All they ask is a little bit of consistency and clarity in policy. This is an area no political party has managed to achieve in the last ten years. Year after year politicians change the laws in this area so it’s no wonder small businesses report an endless rise in the cost of compliance.’
The Government has also confirmed that the right for all employees to request flexible working will come into effect in April.