The Government has indicated it plans to provide working parents with a greater degree of flexibility in the leave they are allowed to take.
Addressing an audience at the Demos think-tank, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg argued that the current paternity leave rules are “Edwardian” and place too large a burden on women.
Mr Clegg said: “Right now, when a child is born, fathers are entitled to just a paltry two weeks of paternity leave. These rules patronise women and marginalise men. They’re based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners.
“That’s an Edwardian system that has no place in 21st-century Britain.”
Mr Clegg continued: “Mothers are expected to take on the vast bulk of childcare themselves. If they don’t, they very often feel judged. If they do, they worry about being penalised at work. So it’s no surprise that many working women feel that they can’t win.
“Children suffer, too often missing out on time with their fathers. Time that is desperately important to their development. We know that where fathers are involved in their children’s lives they develop better friendships, they learn to empathise, they have higher self esteem, and they achieve better at school.
“And men suffer too. More and more fathers want to play a hands on role with their young children. But too many feel that they can’t. It’s madness that we are denying them that chance.”
Changes that are due to come into effect in April will mean that new parents can share 46 weeks of parental leave if the mother goes back to work after 20 weeks. In other words, a father would be entitled to take over the mother’s leave, on statutory pay, for 26 weeks. If the mother went back after 30 weeks then the father would be entitled to 16 weeks.
But Mr Clegg suggested that the reforms may go further.
He said: “We know that men need to be actively encouraged to take time off. And often parents want more flexibility than these arrangements will allow.
“So in the coming weeks we will be launching a consultation on a new properly flexible system of shared parental leave, that we aim to introduce in 2015. I would have liked it to be sooner. But getting this right will take time.”
The latest plans would look at whether fathers should be allowed to take leave after six weeks when many mothers return to work because that is when the more generous maternity pay at 90 per cent of the mother’s average weekly earnings is replaced by statutory pay.
Parents could share the overall leave allowance in either a block or in a series of leave periods too.
Also on the table is a ‘use it or lose it’ system in which fathers are offered a block of leave within, say, 10 weeks of the birth.
Business groups appeared to be split over the mooted changes.
Katja Hall, the CBI’s director for employment policy, welcomed moves that would make parental leave more flexible.
Ms Hall said: “Allowing parents to take ad hoc parcels of leave would make it hard for companies to plan ahead, so we favour parents taking bigger blocks of leave in one go.
“We want to work with the Government to make sure the new system works for parents and employers. Any changes will need to be simple to administer and must allow firms to plan ahead to cover staff absences.”
Others, however, were less enthusiastic.
David Frost, the director general of the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), claimed that while Nick Clegg’s announcement on shared parental leave may prove politically popular, it ignored the needs of business.
Mr Frost continued: “Business is not against the principal of shared parental leave, but how is an employer expected to plan and arrange cover with this fully-flexible system? This is too difficult for small businesses to deal with, and could prevent them from taking on staff at a time when they are expected to create wealth and jobs. The rigid rules Nick Clegg refers to and plans to abolish are the very same rules needed by business to help them plan.
“It suggests that the Government is out of touch with how to support business owners. This sort of red tape is like a sledgehammer hitting small businesses which should be sources of growth and jobs.”
Alistair Tebbit of the Institute of Directors (IoD) took a similar line.
He argued that, although it may be understandable why ministers want to give fathers the opportunity to take more parental leave, it is equally vital that new costs and administrative burdens are not imposed on employers in the process.
Mr Tebbit concluded: “Our current system of maternity leave is already difficult and costly for firms – particularly SMEs – to operate. If employees were given the opportunity to take leave in short blocks, the system would become virtually unmanageable – how would firms arrange cover?
“The Government needs to take on board the message from businesses and get the detail of this policy right. You do not promote economic growth by making it harder for firms to employ people and encumbering them with time consuming regulations.”