Weekly dilemma: maternity and paternity leave

We employ five staff in our accounts department, including a couple who are expecting their first child in April. They wish to take time off after the birth and jointly share childcare responsibilities. The husband has already spoken with his line manager about taking two months’ leave after the birth. As the department is relatively small, we are concerned about losing two key staff for any lengthy period. What are our obligations?

A: All working mothers are entitled to ordinary maternity leave of six months. Parents who have been employed for a minimum of six months at the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth (EWC) are entitled to paid leave. The father is entitled to take statutory paternity leave of one or two weeks, while the mother can take up to 12 months of maternity leave, the first six months of which will be paid.

However, new parents expecting children on or after 1 April 2007 will have enhanced rights under the provisions of the Work and Families Act 2006. In particular, working mothers will be able to take up to 12 months maternity leave from the start of their employment without the need to have worked for six months and the maternity pay period will be extended from 26 to 39 weeks.

Working fathers will remain entitled to just two weeks statutory paternity leave, but in future years this is also likely to change, under one of the most controversial proposed changes fathers may be entitled to take additional paternity leave. This will be available under a proposed new right which allows the father to share childcare responsibility in the child’s first year by essentially ‘splitting’ the maternity leave available.

Additional paternity leave (of up to 26 weeks) will be available if the mother returns to work before the end of the maternity leave period. However it cannot start before the mother has taken at least 20 weeks.

No date has yet been set for the introduction of this new right but it is likely to come into force as at the same time as provisions extending the maternity pay period to a year come into force, in either 2008 or 2009.

Currently the options for this couple would be for the father to make a request for parental leave, which could then be extended by paid or unpaid leave after the child’s birth.

Kerstie Skeaping, associate, Halliwells

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