Is SPL for grandparents a realistic policy?

Is extending shared parental leave (SPL) to grandparents just another headline-grabbing Conservative conference ‘idea’ that is unlikely to be taken up?

George Osborne recently announced plans to extend paid shared parental leave to working grandparents, so new mothers can now share 50 of their 52 weeks of maternity leave with the child’s grandparents.

Allowing working new mothers greater flexibility and increasing their ability to return to work when they choose is undoubtedly a good thing. However, this needs to be balanced against the impact on employers.

On the positive side, allowing a mother to share her maternity leave with more people will mean she has the option to go back to work for continuous periods following the birth or adoption of the child. The downside is that it will be much harder to anticipate requests and therefore plan for potential shared parental leave applications from grandparents. It's difficult enough to arrange shared parental leave cover for the mother and father of the child, but at least HR will generally know if the employee is having a baby or looking to adopt. This won't necessarily be the case with grandparents.

The current shared parental leave regulations are extremely complex and many employers find them difficult to understand, let alone manage and administer. For example, employees have the option of requesting discontinuous periods of leave (i.e. lots of different weeks rather than one block) and may ask to vary an agreed period of leave up to three times. While employers can refuse discontinuous blocks they have no right to refuse a request for a continuous block of leave.

Many organisations already find this very difficult to manage, particularly arranging work cover for disjointed periods of leave for two parents. If the current plans go ahead it is likely to become even more difficult and challenging where there are also up to two sets of grandparents to cover for.

There could also be problems with what standard of proof employers need in order to verify the entitlement of a grandparent. At present businesses may request a copy of the child’s birth certificate from their father/co-parent, but in the case of a grandparent this will not prove whether or not he or she will actually be involved in the care of the child. It is also not clear under the current proposals just how far the right will extend and whether, for example, it will also cover step-grandparents.

There is a risk that the proposed plans may create a backlash from employers, many of whom are still acclimatising to the current complicated shared parental leave regulations. This may place a strain on employer/employee relations and perhaps even a reluctance to take on workers of ‘grandparenting’ age.

It is anticipated that the plans will particularly benefit single mothers, who would be able to share their leave with one of the child’s grandparents instead of a partner. However, many grandparents who look after a grandchild do so, for example, over a set number of days per week while working part-time. Given that the current SPL regulations only allow leave to be taken in blocks it may prove unattractive to grandparents in these situations anyway.

Kevin Charles is director of Crossland Employment Solicitors