Employers breathed a sigh of relief last week after the government shelved plans to implement new paternity leave arrangements because of the recession.
But are organisations right to assume that the short-term cost benefits of scrapping the measure will outweigh any long-term risks in damaging equality in the workplace?
The pledge to allow fathers to take six months’ paternity leave after the mother has completed her initial six months’ leave was outlined in Labour’s election manifesto in 2005, and was widely expected to be introduced this year. But last week, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform revealed it was taking a second look at the proposal because of the financial impact it could have on companies already struggling to cope during the recession.
Employers’ groups, which have long campaigned for the proposals to be canned, praised the move. Katja Hall, director of employment policy at the CBI, told Personnel Today the new rights would be an administrative nightmare for HR and should not be introduced while functions were still dealing with the pressures of the recession.
“We have told government the middle of the recession is not the time to introduce this proposal,” she said. “It would be quite a big change in terms of HR practices and administration, and when functions are focusing on survival and coping with the recession, it’s something they could do without.”
She added the government needed to look at how functions would be expected to communicate with their employee’s partner’s employer before the system would be workable. “The proposals should not be brought in until 2010-11, when we are well on the road to recovery, and companies should be given at least six months to prepare for the change,” she said.
Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, called on the government and businesses to use the time to find a more workable solution.
“The bureaucratic burdens involved in allowing mothers and fathers to share parental leave have always concerned us,” he said. “The recession-inspired shelving of the existing proposals must be used by politicians and business leaders to come up with workable proposals that balance competing demands in a way that works for business.”
But think-tanks aimed at improving working conditions for parents reacted angrily to the news saying they were “very disappointed” and the government’s decision was a “retrograde step”.
Sarah Jackson, chief executive of equality campaign group Working Families, said the financial and administrative impact of introducing the measures would not be substantial. The plans would even benefit employers as it would help mums return to work quicker with less retraining or re-integration packages.
“Employers could easily bear the cost at the moment,” she said. “It could benefit some employers because women could only take six months off. If the mother is the major earner, I’m sure her employer would be delighted if she said she will be back sooner because her partner will help with the care.”
She added: “I am worried the government is back-tracking on a pledge it made about better employment rights and is preparing to say because of the recession, [equality] can take a back seat.”
Meanwhile, the Fatherhood Institute, which has called for men to get the same leave entitlements as women, added it only a few men were likely to take up the offer of six months’ leave on statutory pay.
Jeremy Davies, publications manager, said: “We are not necessarily going to see the opening of the flood gates to a whole load of men clambering to take it up, so the new rights wouldn’t impact on employers that much.”
Yet despite agreeing with Davies that initial take-up could be low, leading HR professionals supported the decision to delay the proposals.
Denise Bradley, HR manager at retailers Health Store, said 70% of her 102 staff were male, and she had already received four paternity leave applications this year, so the company would be hit hard if the new rights were introduced. She said hiring temps and providing training to cover those on leave for only six months would be very costly and would hit productivity at a time when the company could afford neither.
Su Cacioppo, head of personnel at pub chain JD Weatherspoons, urged the legislation to be delayed for at least five years because the continuous implementation of legislation for HR was already proving too costly to implement and administer. “This new proposal would disrupt two companies, not just one,” she said.
Paternity laws: key points
The new law on hold:
The plan to give fathers up to 26 weeks’ paid additional paternity leave, allowing mothers to return to work early, and the plan to extend paid maternity leave from nine to 12 months, under the Work and Families Act 2006.
The current law:
Fathers are entitled to just two weeks’ paternity leave.