New parents will enjoy unprecedented amounts of time off to be with their babies, thanks to legislation that comes into force next spring
EMPLOYERS focused on October’s introduction of the new age discrimination laws may well have missed the second important piece of legislation which came into force on the same date. The new Work and Families Act aims to provide greater choice for families looking to balance work and caring responsibilities by bringing in signif icant changes to maternity, paternity and adoption leave, as well as introducing flexible working rights for carers. The new regime will apply to any family where the expected week of childbirth falls on or after April 1, 2007, even if the woman gives birth prematurely.
Under the old system, all women were entitled to 26 weeks ordinary maternity leave. Women who had accumulated six months service by the 14th week before the baby was due also qualified for a further 26 weeks leave. For those expecting a child on or after April 1 next year this distinction has been removed and all women will be entitled to a minimum of 12 months.
Statutory maternity pay will be extended from 26 weeks to 39 for those expected to give birth after the qualifying date. Equivalent provision is also made for statutory adoption pay. The government’s ultimate aim is to extend the statutory pay period to a full year, before the end of the current parliament.
Crucially, the act also sets out to protect the estimated 30,000 women forced out of their
jobs each year, simply for being pregnant or taking maternity leave. The introduction of “Keeping in Touch”, or KIT days, is intended to encourage open and constructive communication between employers and employees during maternity leave. KIT days will allow employees to do some work, without losing maternity pay or bringing their leave to an end, as would happen under the old system. All employees will be entitled to 10 KIT days, regardless of how much leave is taken and should be paid for any work carried out.
But there are new responsibilities for employees too. For example, a woman will need to give eight weeks’ notice, rather than 28 days, if she wishes to change her return date. It has also been clarified that reasonable contact is permitted from time to time during maternity leave – to confirm a return date, for example. Such moves should help alleviate employers’ uncertainty over maternity leave, identif ied by The Equal Opportunities Commission as a signif icant factor in pregnancy discrimination.
New fathers do not miss out under the new law, with plans for an optional 26 weeks extra paternity leave, if the mother returns to work before exhausting her entitlement. They will have to wait longer to benefit though, as the practical details are still out for consultation and are only expected to be put in place at the same time as provisions entitling women to a full year’s maternity pay.
Finally, from April 2007, the right to request flexible working will be extended to the six million people aged 16 or over who care for a sick, disabled or elderly adult. The government is consulting further on the definition of a “carer” and further details are expected later in the year. However, draft regulations suggest the right should be extended to those who care for “relatives, partners or people living with [the carer]”.
Although the first women to be covered by the new laws will not be giving birth until the spring, employers should be mindful of the new processes and responsibilities to which they must adhere. Particularly with workers potentially spending more time away from the job, it will also be necessary to organise any cover well in advance. Recognising the need for clarity and communication between employer and employee – whether as a mother, father or carer – these new rules should help strike a balance between the demands of family and stable business.
Content supplied by Jane Fraser, who heads up the employment pensions & benefits team, Maclay Murray & Spens.