Skip to main content

Family friendly working and parental leave

The UK’s family friendly laws and especially those on maternity and paternity leave, have in many ways extended beyond EU requirements.

Whilst a great deal of the UK’s employment law  has been derived from EU provisions for employment protection and equality in the workplace, it is incorrect to believe that the UK has been reluctant to buy into Directives, as the UK’s family friendly laws and especially those on maternity and paternity leave, have in many ways extended beyond EU requirements.

The UK’s approach to family friendly policy over the last decade may be best summed up by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech on childcare reforms (November 2004):

“A month ago I set out our aspiration to reform the welfare state to fit the needs of today's hard-working families. And I said that one of the most pressing new challenges is to support parents as they bring up young families and as they balance home life and work. Our approach is to give all families more help, whatever their choices, whether they work full time, part time or stay at home with their young children”.

Parental leave

In the UK, the Work and Families Act 2006 extended maternity leave to 52 weeks, which is way in excess of the 14 weeks prescribed by European law. Additionally, it was the UK that determined to offer nine months of paid statutory maternity leave.

The UK has improved provision for fathers in that new fathers (including adoptive parents) have the right to two weeks’ paid time off on the birth of a child. Additionally, with the introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015, the UK took a lead in looking after the interest of working parents.

Flexible working

Another area, in which the UK and not the EU has been proactive, is in promoting the right to work flexibly. The Employment Act 2002 introduced the right to request flexible working for those with parental or caring responsibilities and this was extended in 2014 to all employees with over 26 weeks service. This has enabled many to achieve an improved work life balance in terms of their caring responsibilities and enjoying leisure activities. The new extended right does not just benefit parents or younger employees but also enables older employees to balance their working lives.

Whilst some may harbour concerns that UK maternity and paternity leave rights may erode post-Brexit, it is unlikely that exit from the EU will result in the repeal of the many laws that protect parents. The right to Shared Parental leave was supported by both the coalition Government at the time and the Labour opposition. The same applies to the extended rights to request flexible working. Given the broad support for such measures, it is unlikely that that the political mind set will fundamentally change. 

It would also appear unlikely that larger employers would want to abandon existing family friendly policies. A commitment to family friendly policies may be seen as a good method of recruitment and retention. It is recognised and accepted that pay alone is not enough to keep employees motivated.

However, one possibility post-Brexit is the introduction of exemptions around family leave rights for small employers. Brexit is likely to mean unchartered trading conditions and a challenging period of uncertainty. Small businesses may potentially seek amendments to legislation, including family friendly measures, to ensure they remain resilient.

Andrew Forrest (andrew.forrest@weightmans.com) is based in the Birmingham Employment, Pensions and Immigration Team and is National Head of HR Rely, our fixed fee legal help and support service for employers. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact Andrew or speak to your usual Weightmans contact.