2003 – the year of the parent

The implications for employers are enormous, although vexed bosses would do well to remember that UK parental rights still pale in comparison with those of many of our European neighbours.
That said, prospective parents of children born post-April 2003 will have every reason to celebrate. New baby congratulations presents from the Government include: an increase in ordinary statutory maternity leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks; additional maternity leave of a further 26 weeks (making a total of 52 weeks statutory leave – an increase of approximately three months) for which there will be a shorter qualifying period of service of only six months; a right for the father to take two weeks 'paid' paternity leave on the birth of the child (at £100 per week); an increase in the period of statutory maternity pay from 18 weeks to 26 weeks (and an increase in the basic rate to £100 per week). All parents will also have the right to request flexible working arrangements provided such a request is made before the child reaches the age of six. Regulations will prescribe a process for employees and employers to follow.
Where does this leave employers? Financially, many of the increased pay rates and new rights to paid leave will be neutralised by the statutory reimbursement scheme. The bigger challenge will be managing increased levels of lawful absence as parents seek to make use of their enhanced rights.
Most statutory parental rights are conferred independently of each other. Notice obligations and (in the case of parental leave) postponement possibilities aside, there is little to stop parents taking back-to-back periods of leave to form longer consecutive breaks from work. For instance, a new mother with sufficient qualifying service may opt to take the full period of 52 weeks maternity leave immediately followed by, say, four weeks parental leave and then a period of paid annual holiday. A father could do likewise to supplement two weeks paternity leave into a more substantial career break. When the parent does return to work she/he has the new right to request flexible working arrangements.
One key issue for employers will be the need to arrange more frequent, and perhaps more permanent, absence cover. Options range from an increased use of agency temps, training and developing a more adaptable multi-skilled workforce, and hiring short, fixed-term 'cover' employees. So far so good, but the next sections of the workforce to benefit from enhanced rights and statutory protections are fixed-term employees (from October 2002) and agency workers (part-time workers having already been covered since July 2000).
Temporary cover becomes less necessary with a fluid workforce: staff who can adapt quickly and assume the responsibilities of others will become highly valued. Employers should ensure that job descriptions are drafted sufficiently widely to require employees to take on more diverse responsibilities. It will also be important to manage the new gamut of rights so there is not an 'anti-parent' backlash in the office. Many employers are working towards work-life balance policies rather than simply enhancing parental rights. Communication with employees is key: it is infinitely preferable that absence is well planned, with the core team surrounding the absent worker having a hand in planning cover. Employers must also face up to the challenge of determining which roles can and cannot be done on a part-time or job-share basis. The new rights will inevitably lead to an increased awareness of flexible working options on the part of employees and unreasonable refusals may, as at present, lead to discrimination claims.
Employers' existing maternity and parental rights policies are certain to require an epic makeover. A tidier option is to introduce a 'global' parental rights policy. This would cover all of the relevant rights and benefits in one cohesive document. Behind the inevitable confusion and change that will result from the new regime, there are potential gains for employers. According to the Government, employers that help staff to balance work and family see improvement in business performance. It remains to be seen whether the growing menu of leave options for working parents achieves a workable balance between the needs of businesses and those of working parents.
Employment law partner Julie Quinn and senior associate Jonathan Carr are members of Allen & Overy's lifestyle and equality group