The Government issued its BIS "Modern Workplaces Consultation" on 16 May 2011 . One of the topics covered is "Flexible Parental Leave". Consultation closes on 8 August 2011.
In bare outline, the main elements in the “flexible parental leave” part of the proposals are :

Initial leave rights (around the birth/adoption of a child):
  • Maternity leave to be reduced from the current 52 weeks to 18 weeks (the minimum required by new EU law);
  • "Flexible parental leave" would be available for the next 34 weeks (i.e. after the 18 weeks’ maternity leave period), shared between the parents as they see fit;
  • If the parents decide not to share the 34 weeks so that one of them takes it in full, then a further period of "reserved leave" (4 weeks is suggested) will be available to the other (this is social engineering – the government specifically says at para. 48 that this is because it wants to change the "widespread cultural expectation that it should always be the mother who takes time out from work to care for children");
  • Ordinary paternity leave to remain at 2 weeks;
  • Fathers also to have the right to time off before the birth to attend a limited number (two is suggested) of pre-natal appointments.

Employers would be able to insist that leave is taken in a continuous period (the consultation paper says that "the process of agreeing when leave is taken is left up to the parties … Where they can not agree, the default position would be for parents to take leave in one continuous block"). It also suggests that there "should be no restriction on parents choosing to take leave concurrently. Allowing only one parent to be out of the workplace at any one time would place unnecessary restraints on how leave may be taken, and interfere with the ability of parent and employer to agree how leave is taken".

Subsequent leave rights

Currently parents who have been employed by their current employer for a year or more are entitled to 13 weeks’ parental leave for each child aged between one and five, Not more than four weeks can be taken in any year and the leave must be in blocks of a full week.

The essence of the proposals is to increase the amount of parental leave from 13 to 18 weeks (this is required by new EU law), to remove the requirement of a year’s employment and possibly to increase the age of the child from 5 to 8, 12, 16 or even 18.

Pay

Currently employed mothers who qualify get statutory maternity pay (SMP) for 39 weeks. They receive 90 per cent of their average earnings, subject, after the first six weeks, to a cap of (currently) £128.73 per week.

Under the new proposals the 18 weeks’ maternity leave and the first 21 weeks of the 34 weeks of flexible parental leave would be paid at 90 percent of average earnings subject to the cap noted above, currently £128.73 per week. There is no mention in the consultation paper of special provision during the first six weeks, as at present. The four weeks’ "reserved leave" noted above would be leave with pay as would the two weeks ordinary paternity leave (as at present).

Other leave (including the father’s right to time off for pre-natal appointments and the right to parental leave after the child’s first birthday) would generally be unpaid.

Finally

The suggestions in the consultation paper are not set in stone. They may well be changed, although no doubt the general thrust of encouraging parents to share in the bringing up of small children will be retained. Concerns have been raised that in practice there will be enormous administrative costs involved, not least in policing, if a new system along the lines suggested in the consultation paper is to be adopted and not abused. Concerns have been expressed by, amongst others, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).