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Maternity? Paternity? Ternity? Let's call the whole thing off...

21st Jan 2011
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This week Nick Clegg announced something which wasn’t really news. The previous government made some plans to extend paternity leave and make maternity leave more flexible and Clegg was confirming that the plans will go ahead. (That in itself isn’t news either. Have you noticed how the Lib Dems get wheeled out to deliver bad news or stale news? Anyway, I digress.)

Currently a mother can claim SMP (OMP and EMP - click here for the guide we recently published to maternity) - a grand total of almost £125 per week, ladies, don’t spend it all at once - up to nine months after the birth, and she has by law to take at least two weeks off to recover.

After that however it seems if a mother decides to return to work before the nine months is up, she will be able to transfer any remaining time to, well, someone else. I’m all for the idea. I think a lot of men are disappointed by the paltry two weeks they currently have and would like the option of sharing the childcare at this early stage of a child‘s life. At the same time many women may well like the choice of being able to return to work earlier and regain their earnings - especially those who feel under pressure to go back as the highest earner. But previously there have been expensive childcare needs and difficulties - the end result often being that women who have children end up forced to work part-time and suffer a loss in pension contributions and national insurance payments as a result.

Shared maternity makes sense to a lot of people, especially those in stable marriages and couples. I noticed the BBC referred to ‘husbands’ as those who could share maternity, and no doubt this is the case, but we know it will go further than just those who are married. I am wondering about others in society. Although the details have yet to the revealed, I am wondering who exactly the flexible ‘ternity’ leave can apply to. In his speech, Clegg hinted at ‘grandparents and family friends’ and apparently a lot of professional couples do rely on friends to help care for the children.

So how is the coalition going to define who can share this leave? Families come in all shapes and sizes, life is complicated and relationships are complex. What about single mothers who are desperately needing or wanting to go back to work but do not have the support of a partner. Can a brother, friend or dad take the leave? Can you invoke the responsibility of a godparent for this role? Does it matter if the person taking care of the child is not the father? Do you have to have ‘parental rights’ to the child to take the leave? If not, do they have to be male? Presumably not: the rules will work in the same way for gay as heterosexual couples.

I want to stress that it’s crucial we don’t judge mothers who don’t want to share the maternity leave or who want to work part time. Being a parent is a full time job in itself and how you choose to do it and support your family is a personal choice and priorities will vary vastly from person to person. There isn’t a wrong answer here, but this change in the rules could open more options for parents.

I’m also interested because this will have an effect on how we deal with and plan our organisational development around employees with children. Relatively few couples work together in the same company so this shared ternity will need to cross employer borders.

There was an announcement that this change would help promote equality - yes, instead of people like Alan Sugar discouraging you from employing women of child-bearing age, they can now recommend you don’t employ anyone who may be fertile or capable of looking after a child. Because they may well require some time off at some point in the future. As we know, this is a very negative attitude: most employers realise that a family-friendly stance and striving towards equality pays off dividends. But HR is going to face more paperwork and a more varied set of rules to adhere to in the future. How are you feeling about it: do you welcome it in the name of equality or fear it’s going to be another headache for HR?

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