16th Apr 2007 - 00:00
The Work and Families Act received Royal assent on 21 June 2006 and many of its provisions came into force on 1 October 2006. It brings many far-reaching changes, in particular to maternity and paternity leave. The changes have been welcomed by trade unions, but, unsurprisingly, employers are more cautious. Ruth Christy, employment specialist at Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, looks at the changes.
The Work and Families Act, part of the Government's "Ten Year Strategy for Childcare", pushes the concept of 'work-life balance' even further in favour of working parents. The changes it makes for "choice, equality and flexibility" could see many more parents taking statutory paid time off work to give their child the best start in life. Employers will benefit from measures to retain staff and simplify administration. The changes include: This applies to all women whose expected date of childbirth is or was on or after the 1 April 2007. In addition, all women who qualify for Ordinary Maternity Leave are eligible for 1 year's leave. The Government intends to extend maternity pay to one year by the end of its electoral term, with similar provisions for Adoption Leave. With just over 6 million people over the age of 16 in Britain caring for a sick, disabled or elderly person, the effect of this will be great. Regulations have now defined who is eligible to make a request for flexible working, and the right came into force on 6 April 2007. These are where employees and employers agree that a woman on maternity leave can go into work for a few days without losing her right to maternity leave or a week's statutory pay. To encourage improved communication it has been clarified that "reasonable contact" is permitted during maternity leave. Consultation on draft regulations to increase a worker's entitlement to 28 days' annual leave under the Working Time Regulations 1998 ended on 13th April 2007. The proposals, due to come into force in stages on 1 October 2007 and 1 October 2008, mean that many workers will have a right to the 8 public and Bank Holidays in addition to the current 4 weeks' entitlement. The limit on a week's pay for e.g. redundancy pay purposes (currently £310) is usually increased by £10 each year. This power allows for a once-only increase above this level, resulting in larger redundancy payments and compensation for those unfairly dismissed. Fathers will benefit from Additional Paternity Leave and statutory pay if the mother returns to work after 20 weeks but before the end of her maternity leave period. To be eligible, both must satisfy certain criteria, and the proposal is that fathers will be able to take up to 6 months' leave, some of which will be paid. The government is still consulting on this aspect of the Work and Families Act and draft regulations are currently awaited. Many businesses are sceptical, but they will benefit from improved communication with employees on leave and in planning the return to work. The notice that employees need to give for returning from leave early, or extending their leave, has been increased from 28 days to 8 weeks. Guidance has also been published to 'encourage' employees not returning after maternity leave to say so earlier. Currently, fathers are entitled to two weeks' paternity pay at a capped rate of £112.75 per week. Only 60% of men take their existing entitlement, but this may be because at that time both parents are paid a capped rate. If mothers have returned to work, the incentive for fathers to take time off may be greater.