Happy fam­i­lies

New par­ents will en­joy un­prece­dented amounts of time off to be with their ba­bies, thanks to leg­is­la­tion that comes into force next spring

The Herald Business - - Professional Brief -

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.

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