What you need to know about the latest parental leave private members bill

The latest private members bill on parental leave is due to have its second reading in the House of Commons soon – but what could the measures mean?

Here’s what you need to know.

Context

Former Employment Relations minister, Jo Swinson, proposed a bill last summer which would require organisations with ‘250 or more employees to publish their parental leave and pay policies’ (1). In response, by the ‘end of September 2018 10 major employers (including Accenture, KPMG and PwC) had voluntarily agreed to publish their parental leave and pay policies’ (1). Parental leave and pay polices refer to all family-related leave, so includes maternity, paternity, parental and shared parental, and would require employers to indicate whether they provide for more than just statutory rights to leave and pay.

The proposal intends to provide greater visibility of parental leave packages and transparency between employers. Introducing the Bill, Jo Swinson said ‘more than 54,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, while fathers were worried about taking shared parental leave because of the negative effect on their careers’.

Pregnancy discrimination is on the rise with research indicating that in in the last ten years the number of women forced out of work has doubled. It’s good that this is now being talked about as 24 years ago when I had my first child I was made to feel like a bad mother by my employer (a household name on the high street) when I asked to come back to work part time: ‘you should stay at home and be a housewife now said a (male) HR manager’ – we couldn’t afford that as a couple living in London. Another HR manger told me: “if you want to start leaving on time to get home for childcare you need to leave by the back stairs so no one sees you’ – the culture of presenteeism was alive and well as you can see. I’d like to think we’re in more enlightened times now but I’m not sure.

In an article in the Independent at the time of the Bill’s first reading, Swinson went on to say ‘Publishing parental pay benefits will let employers show that they’re family-friendly and enable them to better attract talent, potentially spurring on some very healthy competition.

Applicants would no longer need to ask about parental leave policy at interview either. And when most employers think a woman should have to disclose at interview if she is pregnant, we need to do everything we can to reduce discrimination in the recruitment process. We should spare women these awkward conversations with people they’ve just met.

Being transparent about parental leave and pay policies will help build a workplace culture where men also feel supported in taking on their fair share of caring responsibilities. But, again, there is no single solution to the problem. We also need working dads, especially those in leadership roles, to be open and proud about how they balance professional and family responsibilities. And the government needs to give fathers a bigger chunk of leave allocated just for them on a use-it-or-lose-it basis and to enhance statutory pay for parental leave.”

The Bill has got cross party support so may well come into force, at the very least for larger employers in the public sector as the civil service has been asked to publish the policies that apply in all government departments. It certainly seems to be the direction that the government is keen to move in, in terms of improving women’s rights. Last Friday the business department (BEIS) published a consultation on extending discrimination protection to those returning from family related leave. Currently while somebody is pregnant or on maternity leave, they are legally protected from any discrimination related to their pregnancy and have the right to first refusal for any jobs in a redundancy situation, even if they are not the best candidate. They are now consulting on extending this protection for six months after return from leave as this is the period when they feel that people often find employers don’t want to accommodate their new caring responsibilities. The consultation closes on 5th April and also considers if the protection should be extended to other new parents, such as those returning from adoption leave.

Helping with the gender pay gap?

It’s certainly true that large employers who have promoted shared parental leave, encouraging their male workers to spend time with their new family and not seeing this as detrimental to their career prospects, have seen real positive impact in reducing their gender pay gaps. It has allowed women to feel that it is possible to take a shorter maternity leave – sharing the care with their partner in the first year – so reducing the ‘pregnancy deficit’ that is acknowledged to occur once women have caring responsibilities.

Potential negatives: Masking their true position?

Personnel Today highlights that some employment contracts state that statutory family pay provision is offered, but in reality, there is discretion or goodwill to increase payments on a case by case basis. This might not be captured under the new bill if only summary statements are required, as suggested in the original bill, and so reported data would not be reflective of how often such companies depart from their default position (1). This could either portray employers in an overly positive or negative light, therefore causing more harm than good.

Be careful

If the bill is passed without amendments, the first annual statement must be published within two months of it receiving royal assent (2).

If an employer fails to publish their family related policies when obligated to do so, and even after receiving a notice of non-compliance, the original bill indicates that they could be served a penalty. This would be in the region of £500 – £5,000 determined by the officer serving the notice, and payment required within 28-60 days of receiving the penalty notice (2).

I’d therefore recommend that employers keep a tab on this as it progresses through Parliament and consider the implications of their statement early on, to avoid scrambling to publish at the last minute or forgetting to do so altogether and having to face the consequences.

Being part of the conversation early, similar to Gender Pay Gap reporting, could stand employers in good favour and I’d strongly urge companies to consider opting in voluntarily before the bill passes – not only from a PR perspective, but as a move towards greater staff retention, satisfaction, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and amongst prospective talent, as well as encouraging a healthy dialogue with employees.

You can track the progress of the bill on the Parliament website here. The second reading is currently scheduled for Friday 15th March 2019.

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