Help with families Bill gets cautious welcome from HR

HR professionals have broadly welcomed government plans to provide employers with more assistance on maternity leave, but warned the proposals could be unduly burdensome.

The proposals, announced in the Work and Families Bill last week, include provisions on dealing with the difficult question of contact with employees during maternity leave.

The Bill also extends the period of notice that a woman has to give when returning early from maternity leave from 28 days to eight weeks.
There is also a proposal to introduce ‘keeping in touch’ days to allow women to work for a limited number of days without losing statutory payments.

Stephen Moir, director of HR at Cambridgeshire County Council, said extending the notice period would help employers deal more effectively with an employee’s return to the workplace.

“It will assist in bringing temporary cover to an end and in dealing with any request for flexible working arrangements,” he said.

“But the principle of ‘keeping in touch’ days does raise some specific technical issues relating to employers’ liability insurance and management of risk while people attend work,” he warned.

Gill Hibberd, assistant director of HR at Hertford-shire County Council, said the costs and complexity of administration would be an issue that some employers would find difficult.

HR practitioners are also seeking clarification on what the government means by ‘reasonable contact’ with employees, Moir said.

“Reasonable contact appears constructive, but the detail will be important given the flexible interpretation of ‘reasonable’ in other employment law,” he said.

Trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson said the government would be setting out in forthcoming guidance what it meant by the term ‘reasonable’. 

Work and Families Bill

– Extension of paid maternity leave from six months to nine months from April 2007

– Intention to extend paid maternity leave to one year by 2009

– Introduction of a new paternity leave period of up to six months for fathers

– Provision of ‘keeping in touch’ days for women who are absent on maternity leave

– Further changes to help employers manage the administration of maternity leave and of employees returning to work

– Extension of the right to request flexible working to carers of sick or elderly adults from April 2007

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