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Paternity Rights: A scandal for whom?

Earlier this week we heard from the Institute for Leadership and Management that only 10% of fathers are taking more than their two weeks’ statutory paternity leave after their child is born. Their survey revealed that over half of managers consider paternity leave to be disruptive to their organisation and detrimental to efficiency.

On its own, one might say that of course a manager will say this. Surprisingly a lot of managers are in favour of women taking up to a year off for maternity leave. The conclusion is that workplace attitudes towards childcare still focus very much upon the mother caring for the child, and the father going back to work as soon as possible. The ILM wants this to change.

It’s not all down to attitude. Some fathers are quite happy to go back to work fairly quickly after their child is born and some find the financial constraints very difficult. Fathers are currently able to take up to 26 weeks’ additional paternity leave, depending on how soon the child’s mother returns to work. Part of the APL may be paid depending on when it is taken, but it is paid at the rate of statutory maternity pay currently in force.

The Department for Work and Pensions agrees that there is a problem, citing financial barriers to managerial staff who are likely to earn substantially less on paternity pay than on their normal salaries. Women are more likely to receive an enhanced company maternity pay rate than men.

No-one would suggest that staff going on an extended period of leave is not a problem for companies organisationally, particularly SMEs. When the person in question is an expert in his field, even with sufficient notice, a temporary replacement is unlikely to provide an equally good service. The same is true of mothers on maternity leave, but employers seem to have rather got used to that. The idea that fathers should be taking much more time off is newer and companies are undoubtedly taking time to accept it and adapt. So are fathers, come to that!

In the modern world the traditional situation of ‘mother at home with the kids’ and ‘father at work providing for them’ is nowhere near as common as it once was. It is not irrelevant by any means, as many couples still choose to follow this pattern. However, more women like to come back to work early and more men do want to spend time with their children so as not to miss baby’s first word.

In 2015, eligible mothers and their partners will be able to take up to 52 weeks of leave and 39 weeks of statutory pay after the birth or adoption of a child. They can choose to take their leave consecutively concurrently, but must give up to eight weeks’ notice in respect of each period of leave.

This will create new risks, for example, if you do not consider a request from a man to work flexibly simply because he is a man he may argue he is being treated less favourably because of his gender. He might also lodge a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

And what about payment for maternity and paternity leave? If your company pays enhanced maternity pay but hardly any paternity pay, you could face sex discrimination claims on those grounds too, so it will be sensible to review your policy to ensure parity.

The right to shared time off may well encourage families to take some time off together during the first 26 weeks but to come back after that (perhaps flexibly),or at least choose one parent to go back to work whilst the other makes use of the leave period available.

The upcoming changes to family working will undoubtedly bring difficulties for business. However if employers consult with their employees as to the challenges they face and discuss and agree the best ways forward, there is a reasonable chance that a workable solution can be achieved.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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