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Rights for Working Families unlikely to improve

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Many UK employment lawyers welcome the report by the Women and Equalities Committee earlier in 2018 which proposed a number of changes to benefit working families. Improvements to parental leave and pay, to shared parental leave, leave for antenatal appointments and to the flexible working rules were all included in the Committee’s report, and gave the best employment lawyers in London cause to be hopeful that real improvements might be around the corner. The UK Government has now issued its response to the Women and Equalities Committee report, and it seems that the optimism felt by many top employment solicitors – and by the working families who would have benefitted - may have been premature.

The Women and Equalities Committee report Fathers in the Workplace

Published in March 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee report, Fathers in the Workplace, looked at how to help fathers achieve better balance between work on the one hand and parental responsibilities on the other. While there has been much work done to improve access to Employment for women who have had children, action to give fathers more rights to fulfil child care and other parental responsibilities is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the report recognises that more effort is required to make significant improvements for working families in this respect.

As a result of their investigations, the Committee made a number of key recommendations to improve the position of working fathers.

- Paternity Leave and Pay

In respect of paternity leave and pay, the report recommended that there should be a ‘day 1’ right to paternity leave, with fathers who are agency workers, and the self-employed able to access paternity pay. It also addressed the issue of the level of paternity pay – often cited as the reason many fathers don’t take paternity leave – recommending that it should be paid at 90% of earnings – with a cap to mitigate the impact of high earners on the public purse. Finally, the report suggested further investigation around the length of paternity leave and whether it is associated with take-up, and the impact on multiple births.

- Shared parental leave and pay

Many of those specialising in employment law for employees would agree with the findings of the Women and Equalities Committee that there has been a low take up of shared parental leave. Although the motivation behind the provision was to improve the opportunities for parents to share the care of their children, it hasn’t achieved this in practice. The committee recommended looking at the introduction of a ‘standalone’ right of paternal leave for ‘second parents’, available in the first year following a child’s birth and paid at 90% of salary (subject to a cap for high earners) for the first 4 weeks, and then at statutory levels. Paternal leave would also be available to agency workers and the self employed.

- Antenatal appointments

A key issue identified by the Committee in respect of time off for ante-natal appointments is the fact that the time off is unpaid. There are also issues with employers making it difficult for fathers to take time off – by simply not publicising the right – and for fathers expecting a multiple birth, the 2 appointment limit may not be sufficient. As a consequence, the Women and Equalities Committee recommended a day one right to paid time off for employees, and a day one right to unpaid time off for agency workers, improving to paid time off after 12 weeks. It recommends further investigation into the needs of those expecting twins or more.

- Flexible working

Recognising that a huge cultural shift is needed to make flexible working a reality for many working fathers, the Committee has called on the Government to legislate to require all roles to be advertised as flexible unless there are solid business reasons not to. While a review and response is anticipated by 2021, the Committee felt this was too long to wait.

- Unpaid parental leave and time off for dependants

The Committee has recommended data gathering be put in place to assess the effectiveness of these policies for both mothers and fathers.

The recommendations by the Women and Equalities Committee were all positive and welcomed by many, but not, it seems by the UK Government. The response published recently was distinctly lukewarm, with the recommendations rejected outright or met with a commitment to undertake more evaluation. In particular the recommendations for paid time off for ante-natal appointments were rejected on the grounds of needing to balance a father’s time off with the competing needs of running a business, and those relating to paternity leave and pay were rejected on the grounds that there was a distinction between the purpose of paternity leave and the first 2 compulsory weeks of maternity leave. The recommendations on shared parental leave were essentially put on the back burner while existing provisions had more time to ‘bed in’.

Although the Government reiterated its commitment to flexible working and to working families, it seems that we are unlikely to see a whole lot of improvements to the existing system for some time. And while there have been definite improvements, the report suggests that if nothing else, culturally, the UK has not moved on enough to allow fathers to take advantage of the rights that are in place for them.

If you have any questions about your Employment rights as a working parent, or you are an employer with concerns about how to implement flexible working policies effectively in the workplace, please call us on 0203 959 9123. Our team of employment lawyers will be happy to help!

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