Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced that from 2015 the UK will move to a new system of flexible parental leave. Audrey Williams, partner and Head of Discrimination at Global law firm Eversheds comments:

“The government’s revised plans for flexible parental leave mark a bold move away from the current highly gender-based and inflexible approach to parental leave, giving fathers much greater scope for taking extended leave after their baby’s birth. Under current regulations, fathers can take two weeks’ leave around the time of birth; they can then take a further 26 weeks’ leave but only when the baby is 20 weeks old, and even then, only if the mother has returned to work. Under the new legislation we can expect parents to have much greater choice over how and when they take parental leave.

“The changes will not be universally welcomed, however. The current paternity leave regulations only started to take effect last year and few employers will look forward to yet another overhaul of this complicated area of employment law and practice. One particularly complex issue will be how the new rules affect enhanced maternity pay schemes that are offered by many employers, and, in particular, whether equivalent enhancements will have to be offered to men who take flexible parental leave.

“As for the plan to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, this divides employers, with some strongly supportive and others feeling that the extension is a step too far. Most will welcome the move away from a rigid timetable for considering requests, but concerned employers worry about how to deal with multiple and competing requests when not all can be accommodated. And although employees only have the right to ask their employer to consider flexible work arrangements, a decision to refuse a request can in some cases lead to claims of discrimination.

“The government has also responded to pressure from Surrogacy UK, a not-for-profit organisation, to improve the rights of parents of surrogate children. At present surrogate parents have no rights under UK law to time off around the baby’s birth. However, the law is currently the subject of a High Court challenge by a woman who says the absence of any right to time off work breaches her right under the Human Rights Act to respect for her private and family life. Another parent through surrogacy has brought a separate claim arguing that UK law does not adequately reflect the rights guaranteed by European law protecting new mothers. While the planned law change will come too late to benefit these women, they will be celebrated by Surrogacy UK, which has been campaigning for the law to be amended for some time.”