Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry outlines the new right to shared parental leave and pay and the benefits to businesses.
The recent passage into law of the Work and Families Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, and associated regulations, is a major step forward for working parents.
The new arrangements give parents of children due to be born, or placed for adoption, on or after 5th April 2015, who meet qualifying conditions, access to shared parental leave and pay in their child’s first year.
This gives families greater choice over how they arrange childcare by allowing working mothers the option to end their maternity leave and pay early, and to share untaken leave and pay with their partner. Adopters are similarly able to bring their adoption leave and pay to an early end to opt into shared parental leave and pay with their partner.
Employers want to know how the changes will affect them.
Systems have been designed to resemble those employers already use. The same overall quantity of leave and pay remains available to a couple, but there is now the option for them to share it.
This creates potential benefits from an employer perspective.
By reducing the need for employees to make stark choices between work and family commitments, the new rights can help employers to retain their best people.
By working with their employees to develop practical plans for sharing leave and pay with a partner, employers may also see key workers being absent for shorter periods of time as shared childcare becomes more commonplace.
For some businesses, this will mean that individual parents actually return to work sooner than under the existing system, in the knowledge that their partner is at home caring for the child.
Businesses already recognise that employees are more productive and motivated when they have the opportunity to work flexibly, and shared parental rights will help employers to retain committed, knowledgeable staff.
The new rights enable both mothers and fathers to keep a strong link to the workplace; they have the option to interrupt their leave to return to work, perhaps to take on a particular project. The system will work best when employers and employees are able to agree to a pattern of leave that suits everyone. Where agreement can’t be reached, there are default arrangements to ensure that shared leave and pay can be taken in a reasonable way.
The measures are a proactive response to changing expectations around work and family life. It is right that we do more to support the role of fathers and partners who want to contribute more to the care of their children.
It is also important to challenge assumptions that only women will ever be absent from the workplace for caring reasons. Addressing these points will have long term benefits for all parents, irrespective of gender, as well as for employers.
Shared parental leave and pay are intended to support a gradual culture change in workplaces, giving fathers more confidence to talk to their employers about taking time off for childcare and challenging expectations about women’s choices around work and home responsibilities.
The new rights will be accompanied by changes that will benefit adoptive parents and people using surrogacy arrangements. The right to request flexible working will also be made available to all employees with 26 weeks’ service.
Published guidance explains the key steps employers and employees need to take and answers frequently asked questions.
Both employers and employees can also contact the Labour Relations Agency helpline if they have a query.
To learn more, visit nibusinessinfo.co.uk (employers) or nidirect.gov.uk(employees) and if you have a specific query, contact the Labour Relations Agency on 028 9032 1442