There’s nothing like the subject of maternity and paternity leave to get people hot under the collar. And so the news that the government is proposing a more flexible system that will encourage men and women to share parental leave has had mixed reactions in the business community.
The new approach will come into effect in 2015 and could include new provisions for parents to take time off in several short blocks.
“We support moves to make parental leave more flexible,” says Katja Hall, CBI director for employment policy — or ‘the voice of reason’, as I call her. “This will help families better balance their work and home life.” But she adds, “Any changes will need to be simple to administer and must allow firms to plan ahead to cover staff absences.”
Absolutely. No-one wants to hamstring businesses.
So what are the arguments against this new flexibility? Some business groups are saying that shorter periods of leave will be too difficult to manage. They say it’s already hard enough for small firms in particular to find cover for employees on parental leave. Some even warn that the proposals could see some small firms going out of business.
OK, it can be challenging for small firms to cover staff on leave. But it’s not impossible. Who are these totally irreplaceable people? And I really don’t buy the idea that parental leave could bring an otherwise healthy small business to its knees.
Mind you, this is the constructive criticism. The more outlandish comments online include rants about “the scroungers who see baby breeding as a way of life” and the suggestion that we “look at this question again when men start giving birth”.
Let’s stick to the facts, people. Lots of couples decide to have kids. Often both of them work. Babies need looking after. People need to work. How individual families approach the division of labour — both bread-winning and domestic duties — should be entirely up to them.
I believe that making parental leave arrangements more flexible can only be good for businesses. By spreading the leave between two parents, the absence of one individual employee is likely to be shorter. And taking that leave in shorter blocks could make it easier for businesses to manage without that employee — knowing they won’t be gone for long.
Of course it all depends how it is administered and managed. Small businesses don’t need any more red tape, that’s for sure. And while these new parental rights are to be welcomed, businesses have rights, too — the right to be kept fully informed with enough notice to make their own arrangements.
The Department for Business is to launch a consultation with businesses on this issue soon. Perhaps if the nay-sayers were to look at the proposals more constructively, instead of offering their usual knee-jerk reaction, we could develop an enlightened approach to parental leave that is good for families and good for businesses.
Previous articles on parental leave
September 2010: Maternity leave extension too costly for small firms, warns BCC