Switching roles

THE government has announced new paternity leave legislation, meaning that parents will be legally entitled to share time off work during their baby's first year

TIMES are changing. The days of the stereotypical family with defined, traditional roles where the man goes out to earn the money and the mum stays at home with the children are becoming less and less common. In order to accommodate this, the government has announced new paternity leave legislation, meaning that parents will be legally entitled to share time off work during their baby's first year.

Our neighbours in Europe, specifically Scandinavia, are well known for being more forward thinking and generous in relation to time-off whilst children are young, and our government is making progress in shaping our paternity and parental leave policies with this in mind. What’s more, the changing demographics of today’s working women may mean that it is more financially viable for some mothers to return to work and leave the main caring responsibilities to their partners.

These days, parents have to be more creative in their attempts to balance the demands of work and looking after their families. The right to take additional paternity leave (APL), which has been extended from two weeks to a maximum of 26 weeks, is now available to parents of children born after 3 April 2011. It can be taken between 20 weeks and one year after the baby is born as long as the mother has returned to work. This right also applies to parents planning to adopt. In effect, this means the mother’s partner can take the balance of her maternity leave once she has returned to work, either up to the end of her maternity pay (39 weeks) or leave entitlement (52 weeks).

In order for an employee to qualify for APL they must be the child’s father or the mother’s husband, partner or civil partner and have, or expect to have, the main caring responsibilities for the child during the leave. So to be clear, this law is not a way for partners to take some time off work to relax! To qualify, they need to have been employed for at least six months before the baby is born and the mother needs to have returned to work. It’s important to point out that APL has to be taken before the child’s first birthday. Further restrictions include a requirement for the leave to be taken in a continuous block and in multiples of a week to avoid days being taken here and there. This should mean less disruption for practices as they will be able to more easily plan for blocks of absence.

To qualify for additional statutory paternity pay (which is different from just leave) you must be an employed earner. That is, you must work for someone who is liable to pay the employer's share of your class one National Insurance contributions. You must also earn at least the lower earnings limit (LEL) for National Insurance contributions in force at the end of the qualifying week.

The current weekly rate for paternity pay is either £128.73 or 90 per cent of weekly earnings if this is less. So whilst it is not a significant amount of money, it matches the rate for maternity pay that the mother would receive. Whilst it may be evident from the bags under their eyes that he or she has caring responsibilities for a new baby, the partner must clearly have assumed the caring responsibilities whilst on APL. It may be wise for practices to confirm this by writing to the mother’s employer to check that she is, in fact, back in the workplace.

There is concern that these new rights will put additional pressure on practices as they will be forced to manage the additional costs, absenteeism and administrative burdens that APL may bring. Like women on maternity leave, fathers or partners on APL still continue to accrue benefits such as annual leave which they will be able to take in addition to the paternity leave.

Regardless of these concerns, the legislation is now in place and employers will have no choice but to accommodate it as the UK strives to be a more familyfriendly place to work. The risk to employers of a tribunal application for sex discrimination landing on their desks if they fail to comply is high. It’s clear. The legislation now provides for BOTH parents to have leave to be with children when they are young.

Janice Sibbald is an HR and employment law adviser at MDDUS

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