New mothers will be able to return to work just two weeks after their child is born, and elect to share the balance of their maternity leave with a partner, under new plans.
The new system for parental leave in England, Scotland and Wales will give women a clearer “route back” to work, ministers have said.
From 2015, Parents will be able to take time off together, or alternate their leave, and have a legal right to request flexible working.
The government has been an advocate of extending flexible working and making existing parental leave arrangements work better for both partners.
At the moment, new mothers can take a maximum of 52 weeks of leave after the birth of their child, while fathers are entitled to two weeks of statutory paternity leave of their own.
Since April 2011, parents can share the 52 weeks’ leave, with the father able to take up to six months once the baby is 20 weeks old, although this can only be taken in continuous period.
Ministers propose a new system, based on “maximum flexibility”. In a speech on Tuesday, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced.
- A new mother will be able to trigger flexible leave at any point after the first two weeks’ recovery period
- Parents will be able to share the remaining 50 weeks between them as they like
- Leave could be taken in turns, in different blocks, or at the same time
- Maximum leave will remain 12 months, nine of them on guaranteed pay
- Couples will need to be “open” with employers and give them “proper notice”
- Paternity leave to remain at two weeks but to be reviewed in 2018
However, expectant fathers will be able to claim unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments.
“I have accepted that extending paternity leave should be revisited when the economy is in a stronger state,” he said.
“These are major reforms and – at a time of continuing economic difficulty – it is sensible to do them in a number of steps rather than one giant leap. More and more men are taking on childcare duties – or want to – and flexible leave builds on that.”
Mr Clegg also said that the government will extend the legal right to request flexible working to all employers.
But the Federation of Small Businesses said extending the right to request flexible working would place added burdens on firms.
“Allowing chunks of maternity and paternity leave of as little as one week to be taken will place a disproportionate strain on small firms and will be very complicated to administer,” said chairman John Walker.
Unions, however, said the changes would make “life easier” for millions of working parents.
“Allowing all staff to ask to work flexibly is common sense to good employers,” said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.
“But we know that too many businesses are still reluctant to modernise working practices so the government is right to give them a nudge with this new universal right to request flexible working.”