The changes will allow new parents to share leave and statutory pay. While new mothers will still be entitled to two weeks off after giving birth, the remaining 50 weeks of paid maternity leave can be split between both parents, however they like.
New parents will be able to request the time off in blocks or split it up, but employers have the right to insist it is all taken at once. Employees must give at least eight weeks’ notice of their plan to take leave.
New parents will be entitled to return to the same job only if they take six months off or less. Parents taking more than six months off may return to a role that is similar but not identical.
Announcing the changes, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said he hoped the reforms would stop women feeling like they have to choose between a “successful career or having a baby”.
“We want to create a fairer society that gives parents the flexibility to choose how they share care for their child in the first year,” he said.
The CBI welcomed the news. Neil Carberry, director of employment and skills, said: “We are pleased that the Government has listened to firms’ concerns about being able to plan effectively around parental leave.
“Businesses want to support parents and need a workable and straightforward system so they can do so.”
However, the Institute of Directors criticised the “complex and unwieldy” new system, calling it a "nightmare" that would "heap yet more burdens on struggling employers".
Work-life organisation Working Families also raised concerns that the process is too complex for employees, saying the notice period is too long and the return to work processes “confusing”.
“Shared parental leave will only be a success if we encourage fathers’ engagement from the outset – and that means making it easier to take paternity leave too,” said chief executive Sarah Jackson. “The right to return proposals here are complex and confusing and may not give parents the comfort they need to exercise their rights.”
The TUC also criticised the fact that new parents may return to find their job has changed after six months. General secretary Frances Grady said: "By failing to give parents the right to return to the same job after six months, the Government has missed an opportunity to prevent a constant source of pregnancy discrimination, where mums returning to work find that their job has changed.
“The proposal will create confusion for employers and be a source of anxiety for women who decide to take more than six months of leave.”