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Changes to parental leave legislation

Shared parental leave rights come into force in December 2014. Are organisations prepared for the increased administration it will bring?

On 1 December, one of the government’s most anticipated pieces of legislation comes into force. Shared parental leave rights will be introduced for parents expecting babies or ready to adopt a child from 5 April 2015.

“This means employers can expect to receive queries and requests from expectant parents now,” says Nina Robinson, head of legal services at HR Legal Service.

Working Families CEO Sarah Jackson says her organisation has already started getting calls about it from parents-to-be. “There’s high awareness as the government has made a point of talking this up,” she says.

The question is: are organisations ready? “There’s a lot of admin behind this for employers and employees,” says Simon Kerr-Davis, a senior employment lawyer at Linklaters.

He adds that while this might look intimidating, the guidance released by the government will help. “It answers questions everyone has been desperate to know,” he says. “The guidance is user-friendly, even if the legislation is not.”

The first step for employers is to think about their policies, Kerr-Davis advises. They need to not only make sure their shared parental leave policy covers statutory requirements, but also consider whether or not to enhance shared leave.

“Is this an ‘employer of choice’ issue, or will you just focus on maternity?” he asks. “If so, why? You might be at risk from discrimination claims. Employers really need to think through their strategy.” Both Robinson and Kerr-Davis also emphasise the importance of training managers so they are fully prepared to answer any queries.

One employer who is already ahead of the game is energy provider Centrica. Head of HR policy and diversity Alison Hughes says the organisation has rethought its approach to gender diversity and, in particular, dads in the workplace.

“We have focused a lot lately on women, and dads sometimes feel neglected,” she says. “But with parts of our business being male-dominated, we need to understand what the organisational impact will be.” When Centrica re-launches its family friendly policies later this year, shared parental leave will be fully incorporated.

Centrica is lucky to have a dedicated HR team to work through the nuts and bolts of the new legislation, but not all businesses have this resource. SMEs may struggle with the complexity. While a small business exemption was suggested in consultation, it was not accepted.

“It is a complex piece of legislation, but that complexity is inevitable because you are trying to offer flexibility to two employees whose relationship depends on each other,” says Kerr-Davis.

“Maternity legislation isn’t straight forward, so one of the pleas I’ve had from the business is to try and keep it simple, for managers and employees,” says Hughes. “It takes time to get your head around it and I imagine this could be problematic for small businesses.”

She advises planning ahead and understanding your employee demographic, as well as engaging staff in the process to give an idea of potential impact.

However, Jackson believes that although the legislation appears “terribly complicated" if you look at every ‘what if’, in reality things won’t be as hard as some businesses might anticipate. “Don’t tie yourself in knots over it,” she advises.

The government anticipates a relatively low take-up of between 2% and 6%, but both Kerr-Davis and Jackson believe take-up will be higher, particularly in the weeks just after birth. Kerr-Davis predicts more men taking “babymoons” with their partners, perhaps opting for six weeks paternity rather than the traditional two.

Hughes expects low take-up at first in her business, but thinks this will increase over time as attitudes and cultures change.

“This is all about enabling choice and flexibility for parents,” she says. “It is an important step towards creating true gender equality and will support organisations in the attraction and retention of talent. The debate is much wider than pay.”