Next year, the Coalition Government will deliver on its pledge to encourage shared parenting by introducing a new entitlement to shared parental leave for working parents and adopters.

Shared parenting is good for parents, good for children and good for keeping women in the labour market.

What is changing and when

There will be no changes to maternity leave and pay. All employed women will continue to be entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. All eligible fathers, or a mother’s partner, will continue to be entitled to two consecutive weeks of paternity leave. Shared parental leave and pay will replace additional paternity leave and pay for the parents of babies due (or placed for adoption) on or after 5th April 2015.

The new system will enable an eligible mother to take less than her statutory entitlement of 52 weeks of maternity leave and convert the untaken weeks into shared parental leave and pay. She will then be able to share the leave with her partner (if eligible), and to stop and start the leave allowing both parents to intersperse caring for the baby with periods at home.

A mother can reduce the maternity leave she takes either by returning to work before the 52 weeks, or she can give her employer binding notice of the number of weeks of maternity leave she will take. By committing in advance to reduce her maternity leave period, the balance of untaken leave will convert to shared parental leave and her partner will be able to start taking the shared parental leave whilst the mother is still on her maternity leave.

Shared parental leave will thus enable both parents to be at home together with the baby from the earliest stages, if this is what they want to do. It will enable them to share the care throughout the first year. Or it will enable the father to be the child’s primary carer.

The reasons that things are changing

The current system of maternity and paternity leave is old-fashioned and restrictive and for some families it gets in the way of how they want to care for their child. It restricts a mother’s ability to return to work for periods within the first year as she will lose any entitlement to further maternity leave.

Some mothers may want to combine periods at home with their child but also want to return to work for a specific project while their partner looks after the child. The mother then wants to resume her time at home with their child whilst her partner returns to work. But the current arrangements won’t let the family do this as maternity leave ends forever when a mother returns to work.

And increasingly, we find fathers wish to take a greater role in childcare, beyond the two weeks of statutory paternity leave. With shared parental leave, couples have the flexibility to agree childcare arrangements that suit them best.

But this is not only about what families want. By giving families more choice, the Government expects that women will be able to better maintain their attachment to the jobs market. That means mothers’ skills and experience are not lost to the economy, and employers are able to select from the best pool of talent.

What will it mean for employers

Shared parental leave is a new statutory right and it is a bit different because whether an employee qualifies depends on whether the employee’s partner is working (or has worked recently). An employer only knows if their employee will qualify if the employee notifies them with a declaration and a declaration from their partner. It may be new and unfamiliar, but only in the same way that maternity and paternity leave once were new. Once it is bedded in, we have every confidence it will become run-of-the-mill for employers, and Acas is providing guidance.

Employees will need to give their employer sufficient notice over what they are doing and when. Any periods of absence on shared parental leave will need to be booked by the employee at least eigth weeks in advance.

This will be a significant change to the way that parental leave rights work. Both mothers and fathers (or a mother’s partner) will now be able to take periods out of the workplace in the first year of a child’s life. Employers with a high proportion of female employees can look forward to their employees taking shorter periods out of work when they have a baby. This means that valuable employees with specialist skills don’t have to be counted out for a full year when they become pregnant.

Also, employees don’t have to take the leave all in one go, as they do for maternity leave or additional paternity leave. So if an employer has a big project or a peak period, like the Christmas rush, they can ask their employee whether they would like to come back to work to cover that period. At the moment, even if a mother wanted to come back for a short period half way through her maternity leave, she couldn’t without giving up the remaining leave permanently.

Further information on shared parental leave will be available at the “Getting to grips with Shared Parental Leave Conference” on the 13th November 2014 in London, where HRreview are media partners. If you want to meet the author of this article, Kim Wager, make sure to book your place now!