Labour and relations

Maternity leave change will revolutionise the workplace

Richard Fox, head of employment, Kingsley Napley

When, on 13 November, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced changes to our system of maternity leave and flexible working, he ushered in a new working environment.

By 2015 it will be for mothers and fathers to decide how they want to distribute 50 of the 52 weeks’ maternity leave and for all employees, not just those who have children or need to care for disabled relatives, to have the right to request flexible working arrangements.

Employers will have to deal with such requests reasonably and in a reasonable period of time. This may not be as frightening for employers as some would have you believe. Earlier this year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development surveyed more than 1,000 employers, large and small.

They found only a tiny number (4 per cent) had difficulty with the ‘right to request’ legislation, while more than 75 per cent believed implementing flexible working practices had a positive effect on staff retention, among many other business benefits.

We know this government has not historically spoken with one voice on such matters. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that the ‘fire at will’ fans seemed to be in the ascendant. However, if it maintains its present line, in years to come we will wonder what all the fuss was about. Indeed, very many businesses these days are already accustomed to their employees working flexibly.

More than that, in our quest to restore the nation’s finances, what could make more sense than to seek to unlock the potential that is the estimated one million women in the UK who remain at home because they cannot find work that will accommodate the arrangements they need to look after their children?

We must also address the need to put more women into the boardroom - not by statutory quota, but through better management of women’s careers. The ability of couples to choose between themselves as to how the child-caring is shared - which could turn on the stage each has reached in their careers - may come to play a big part in solving that age-old conundrum.

So, 13 November 2012 may come to be remembered as much more than the day we reconfigured our statutory maternity/paternity and flexible working arrangements - it could be a significant milestone in the journey to opening up the UK workplace to all.

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