Parental Leave entitlement set to increase from 13 to 18 weeks: Are you prepared?

What has changed?
From Friday 8 March 2013, parents will be entitled to take up to 18 weeks unpaid parental leave, an increase from the previous entitlement of 13 weeks.

What is parental leave and do we have to allow an employee to take it?

Eligible employees will be entitled to this increased parental leave, which may be used to cover schooling and childcare problems, attending appointments with children or simply time to spend with the kids!

To qualify for the right the employee must have at least 1 years’ continuous service and have, or expect to have, responsibility for a child.

The statutory right provides for unpaid leave which can be taken in respect of children aged up to 5 years (18 years in respect of disabled children and before the later of 18 years or the 5th anniversary of the date of placement in the case of adoption).

The right remains limited to a maximum of four weeks per year (unless agreed otherwise) and should be taken in blocks of at least a week (except where the child is disabled).

Other than in certain prescribed circumstances (e.g. where the parental leave immediately follows the birth of a child or placement for adoption), an employer can postpone an employee’s parental leave where the employer considers that the operation of its business would be unduly disrupted. For example during a peak period, or where the individual is key to a time-critical project. Postponement can be for up to six months. There are certain requirements for postponement which should be considered and complied with. There are also requirements for the employee in relation to giving notice of the leave.

In practice, the uptake of parental leave hasn’t been that great, perhaps largely due to the fact it is unpaid.

Can an employee take action if they are unhappy with how we have dealt with their parental leave request?
An employee can make a complaint to an Employment Tribunal if the employer unreasonably postpones parental leave or prevents (or attempts to prevent) the employee from taking it. Claims can also be brought where the employee is dismissed or subjected to a detriment for seeking or taking leave. If the employee is successful, the Tribunal may award compensation.

Will there be more changes?
The requirement for this increase to parental leave comes from a European Directive. However, this is the first of a number of other changes planned by the Government which intend to provide greater flexibility for parents. Proposals due to come in during 2015 are currently under consultation and include an extended right to request flexible working and a scheme of shared parental leave – which, despite its name is different to the ‘parental leave’ explained above.

‘Shared parental leave’ is designed to effectively allow parents to share the statutory maternity leave and pay that is currently available only to mothers (and with equivalent provisions in respect of adoptions).

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