Belfast Telegraph

Dads could share leave with mums after child born

By Lesley Houston

Proposed changes to the way parents will be able to share leave after the birth of a child have been released for public consultation.

The plans received a cool welcome from a small business organisation which said they could hamper the operation of firms.

The draft plans, floated by employment minister Stephen Farry, would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK where mothers and fathers will be able to split 50 weeks of leave after the birth of their child from 2015. Mr Farry launched the process to gauge the opinions of parents and businesses over whether they believe the scheme could work in Northern Ireland.

The Alliance minister’s department maintain the thrust of the move is to give parents greater choice in their childcare arrangements during their offspring’s early formative years.

Adoptive parents, children and eligible surrogates would also be able to avail of the planned arrangements which extends rights previously enjoyed by mothers only. Parents have welcomed the spirit of the scheme but some employers, especially small firms, expressed concern over the bid to change the status quo.

Dr Stephen Farry, said: “These proposals have clear potential to benefit working families, and indeed employees generally, whilst helping employers embed more flexible employment practices that are well suited to the needs of today's changing economy. A bill is currently progressing through Parliament that will introduce these rights in Great Britain. It is clear to me that there is a desire for a frank debate on working parents' rights in Northern Ireland which takes account of these developments.”

Mr Farry’s paper outlines the rationale behind the proposals as allowing greater flexibility for working families. It also aims to “increase paternal involvement during these formative periods”.

It further aims to “address gender equality issues that arise from women being away from work for long periods due to parental commitments”.

The Federation of Small Businesses said it was “urging caution” in response to the plans.

The FSB’s Policy Chairman, Wilfred Mitchell said the new option — which would also result in a “very significant broadening of the existing right to request flexible working” — commented: “The detail in the consultation document on these proposals already signals the complexity which they would add to the challenges small business owners face. The new proposals create a grave risk that businesses will find themselves either having to spend substantial amounts of time on additional compliance or, alternatively, accidentally falling foul of the new rules. That is not helpful.”

The consultation period will close on 23 August 2013.

Background

Under the new set-up of shared parental leave and statutory shared parental pay, parents will be able to take leave over one week blocks, decided by the parents and approved by their employers. Parents adopting a child, whether civil or same sex partner will be treated the same, as will surrogate parents who fulfil Parental Order criteria. Mothers will retain the right to take their full leave if they wish — they won’t have to share it with the child’s father if they prefer not to.

Questions and answers

Q What will the new measures offer parents?

A Fifty weeks of shared leave in one week blocks at periods pre-approved by employers.

Q How will the shared leave work?

A Parents may take the leave in turns or take it together, provided that they take no more than 52 weeks combined in total. For example, the mother could take the first eight months, with the father taking the remaining four months.

Q Do mothers have to share leave with fathers?

A No, mothers who currently qualify for 52 weeks of maternity leave and 39 weeks of maternity pay or allowance will continue to do so in the same way that they do at present if they prefer.

Q What will happen to paternity leave?

A The two weeks’ paternity leave provision for the use of the father will be retained on a “use it or lose it” basis in a single block of one week or two weeks to be used within 56 days of the birth if preferred.

Case study: small business

Wendy Love, manager of OIympic Fixings Ireland Ltd, which employs 20 people at its Bangor location said she could foresee difficulties for small companies.

“From our point of view, from that of a small business I could see how we would be better off. If you have a woman off on maternity leave you have that key person off for a long time so if they were going to split their time with their husband we would have that person back in the office, sooner or for longer time than what currently is the case.

“But on the other hand, employers usually just had to cope with women being entitled to the full maternity leave — but in this case, potentially the entire workforce would be entitled to it.

“So whereas before you had half the workforce entitled to it, it would be all of them. From that point of view it would be harder for small businesses to cope.”

”We don’t have excess people; you can’t afford in a small company to hire more people.”

Case study:the parents

Carol Fitzsimons from Bangor is currently on maternity leave after having her second child, a baby daughter who is just 11 days old.

She and her husband David, who is on two week’s statutory paternity leave at the moment, agree in principle to sharing leave if the potentially far-reaching impact of its logistics are permitted.

Carol said: “As a new mum you have to find what works for your family. I think there are some reservations about it in that say, if mums wanted to breastfeed and establish that well, it could really work against that.”

Carol, who is on leave from her position as chief executive of Young Enterprise, added: “As an employer it’s really complicated and could be difficult to manage.

”I would encourage a full consultation to work out the practicalities of it.

“I suppose overall I would encourage it as long as it’s fully consulted and it would be important to properly work out how practical it is.”

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