· 2 min read · Features

Get ready for the April 2011 changes in maternity/paternity and flexible working rights

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Over the past decade, there has been a steady improvement in the rights of families at work. Up to a year's maternity leave is available to all women regardless of length of service, and Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) has gradually been improved up to the current limit of 39 weeks. Paternity leave and pay, and the right to request flexible working, were initially introduced in 2003 and are shortly set to undergo further transformation.

Current paternity leave entitlement is to two weeks off in the eight-week period following the birth of a baby. The previous Government introduced regulations, in force since April 2010, under which a father would be able to share a period of maternity leave with his spouse or partner. The regulations affect parents of children due on or after 3 April 2011.

Under these regulations, employed fathers have the right to take up to six months’ leave after the child is 20 weeks old and before the child’s first birthday. If the leave would have fallen during the mother’s SMP period, the right to payment will also transfer to the father and so may in part be paid. 

Following the election of the coalition Government, it was initially suggested that these changes might be scrapped. However, on 30 September 2010, the employment relations minister, Edward Davey, announced that the Government was committed to family-friendly working and that the regulations would remain in force as originally published.

Davey also went on to say that the Government intended to introduce more ambitious plans later in the year and that these regulations are to be regarded as an interim measure.

In addition, there will be a further extension of the right to request flexible working. Current regulations allow parents of children under 17 (or disabled children under 18) to request flexible working. A request can only be refused on certain limited grounds. From April 2011, this right will be extended to parents of children under 18, benefiting an estimated further 300,000 people.

Again this is stated to be very much a first step: Equality minister Lynne Featherstone said: "This will be a long process involving wide-ranging change, and today’s measures are the first stage in that journey." The Government has already announced that it intends to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees and to introduce a system of flexible parental leave. 

The past few weeks have seen the introduction of the Equality Act and this potentially seismic announcement by the Government. Those who hoped for a reduction in employment-related regulation will be sorely disappointed. 

What should employers be doing now? Here are some suggestions:

  • Review maternity/paternity and flexible work policies and procedures to ensure they take into account the changes from April 2011 onwards
  • Put systems in place to ensure the correct information about additional paternity leave and pay is captured – by using template notices and employee/mother declaration forms
  • Organise internal processes to ensure that entitlement to additional paternity leave/pay is included

Piers Leigh-Pollitt is a partner at employment lawyers Doyle Clayton