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Is your business up to speed with key changes to family-friendly policies?

With countless surveys focusing on the need to achieve a healthier work-life balance, the government has looked to introduce measures to help working parents with two key changes due to come into force in April this year. Here's a brief guide on these and the key things employers need to consider when it comes to family-friendly regulations.

Labour’s recent pledge to double paid paternity leave for working dads is just another example of how politicians are acknowledging the importance of family-friendly working practices - and why employers need to stay on top of ever-changing employment laws.

Challenging as this may be for many smaller employers it is important to remember that parents, and other people who combine work with caring for dependents, have some specific rights protected by law, and failure to keep up to date with these can prove costly.

From 5th April this year two key changes are set to come into force:

Parental leave

Parental leave is for employees to take time off work to look after a child's welfare, this leave is normally unpaid. At present this leave can be taken up to the child's fifth birthday, however, in April 2015 the age limit will increase to include children up to 18 years old.

Employees must have completed one year's service with an employer in order to be eligible to apply for this leave.

Under the rules the employee is entitled to take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave before the child's eighteenth birthday, This can be taken at any time, including straight after the birth, adoption or after a period of maternity leave, however employees need to give at least 21 days’ notice of their leave request and you can request that this in writing.

This leave should normally be taken in blocks of a week or multiples of a week, and not as "odd" days off, unless agreed otherwise. Employees cannot take off more than four weeks during a year and they remain employed while on parental leave so that the normal terms of the contract, for example around notice and redundancy still apply.

Shared parental leave

Not to be confused with the above, shared parental leave is the second key change to become law from this April.

Shared parental leave changes April 2015

It has already have received plenty of publicity, the new regulations already apply to anyone due to give birth or adopt on or after 5th April 2015 – which means that some employers may already have been approached with shared parental leave requests.

It means that eligible employees will have the right to request shared parental leave and pay. In essence a couple will be allowed to share the mother’s 52 week entitlement to maternity leave by opting to take shared parental leave (SPL).

The regulations apply to both parents of children born or adopted after 5th April 2015 regardless of which parent works for you. Each eligible parent is able to submit three notices booking periods of leave. Employees can also request they alternate the 12 months’ leave available between them, potentially on a monthly basis.

In addition, parents taking SPL will also be able to share up to 20 optional “in touch” (SPLIT) days, in addition to the 10 KIT days women can get on maternity leave.

Parents are still entitled standard maternity, paternity and adoption leave and pay, unless they choose to opt in to SPL instead.

Even if a couple opt for SPL, a birth mother must still take at least two weeks leave following the birth of a child. Fathers can also take two weeks statutory parental leave and pay in addition to any shared parental leave.

Employers should handle any SPL requests carefully. In the first instance it’s advisable to discuss the application in depth with the employee before they formally submit a request as repeated applications will be very time consuming to assess.

Employers have no right to reject an application for continuous leave; shared parental leave can only be rejected on a similar basis to the objections to flexible working. You also cannot penalise parents for using SPL, or put any pressure on them to cancel or change it.

Failure to follow the regulations correctly could result in employment tribunal action, so if in doubt it is good idea to get expert advice. To find out how the Forum of Private Business can help your business with this and other employment-related issues call us on 0845 130 1722.

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