Extended family rights are wrong for the present

It has been reported that unions are urging ministers to press ahead with plans to extend maternity leave after rumours that Lord Mandelson “wants a bonfire of any legislation” that may damage business during the current downturn. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, said there would be a backlash if ministers backtracked on new rights for working mothers, expected to come into force in April 2010.

Shelved proposals

The government had announced its intention to extend the period of statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance and statutory adoption pay from 39 weeks to 52 weeks. There was also to be a new right for fathers to take additional paternity leave and additional statutory paternity pay. It was intended that fathers should be able to take up to 26 weeks’ leave (some of which would be paid) if the mother returned to work after six months, but before the end of her maternity leave period.

But it appears the government is considering shelving this legislation, which must be the right decision in the current climate. Employers are already burdened with having to administer and pay for existing rights. During the current downturn, any steps which central government can take to avoid this administrative and cost burden increasing must be taken. This not only applies to the extensions of the maternity pay allowances, but equally to the new paternity rights to leave and pay.

Rights and wrongs

On the administrative side, a significant additional administrative burden would be caused to the father’s employer, should the government’s plans be enacted. Currently, the father’s employer has no administrative burden, as these new measures do not exist. The new plans would involve the father’s employer in a number of additional steps new policies concerning these rights would need to be developed and implemented, and there would need to be a notification procedure from the father and for HR professionals to then administer the process. The father’s employer would need to verify the extent of the mother’s maternity leave which has been taken, with the mother’s employer. Both sets of employers would be expanding administrative time in the verification and liaising process.

There is also the knock-on effect which an absence would have on the remaining employees. Work patterns would need to be altered, involving further time and effort. Employers need to ensure that the quality and levels of output of their business are maintained. The last thing any employer needs in the current climate is to take any steps which might otherwise jeopardise valued orders coming through the door.

It is questionable how many parents might take advantage of these extensions, in any event. Very few parents will be able to afford to do so, both from a financial and practical perspective. The current statutory maternity pay level of £117.18 per week will rise to £123.06 per week from April 2009. This is hardly an incentive to encourage mothers to take the extra 13 weeks’ leave, or fathers to use the new rights. Of course, it is far easier to do so if a partner is in receipt of earnings however, these numbers are also currently in decline.

Practically, one can question how confident fathers would be of not damaging their employment through availing themselves of these rights. When jobs are scarce, it is more likely than not that employees will go out of their way to avoid putting their heads above the parapet by taking advantage of new rights, which would damage the employer’s business.

Key points

  • The government’s intention was to extend the period of statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance and statutory adoption pay from 39 to 52 weeks.

  • New right for fathers to take additional paternity leave and additional statutory paternity pay.

  • Significant additional administrative burden on both the fathers’ and mothers’ employers to accommodate any father’s request, in particular.

  • Additional financial cost to the father’s employer in relation to additional statutory paternity pay.

Jonathan Maude, partner, Hogan & Hartson

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