By Max Clarke

Plans to give fathers up to 10 months’ paid paternity leave were outlined today by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. This follows the original plans laid out by the Labour government to introduce Additional Paternity leave on or after 3 April 2011, which will give fathers a right to up to six months extra leave which can be taken once the mother has returned to work.

The news has been heralded by commentators as a needed step in promoting diversity in the workplace while Mr. Clegg described the existing system as ‘Edwardian’; though business lobbyists, including members of the UK200Group of accountants and lawyers and the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), fear that the changes will pose further complications for small businesses, restricting them and making them less likely to hire new staff at a time when increasing private sector employment is paramount.

Research carried out by UK executive coaching company, Talking Talent, in November has revealed that nearly half (46 percent) of fathers would take advantage of the new shared parental leave, which will come into force, while one third (33 percent) of survey respondents said they didn’t plan to use the leave, and 18 percent were undecided.

Chris Parke, managing director and co-founder of Talking Talent, believes that if the legislation is going to work, business leaders must be proactive:

“I believe that business leaders have two considerations to make when it comes to the parental leave legislation. Firstly, they need to look at how they plan to extend their statutory pay around paternity. And, secondly, they may need to consider how they would change their corporate culture so that men are encouraged to take additional paternity leave without it being viewed in a negative way or damaging to their careers.

“From a corporate point of view, this new legislation will help create a more diverse workforce, and it will support organisations in maintaining career momentum for women. And, for those families where the woman is the main bread winner, or whose career takes precedence, the legislation will really provide them with greater choice and flexibility.

Also commenting on today’s announcement on shared parental leave, David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), is cautious of implementing complex new legislation at a time of upheaval, saying:

“While Nick Clegg’s announcement on shared parental leave may prove politically popular, it fundamentally ignores the needs of business. Last week, David Cameron claimed a pro-growth, pro-business, pro-jobs agenda, but now the Government expects small businesses to cope with yet more red tape.

“Business is not against the principal of shared parental leave, but how is an employer expected to plan and arrange cover with this fully-flexible system? This is too difficult for small businesses to deal with, and could prevent them from taking on staff at a time when they are expected to create wealth and jobs. The rigid rules Nick Clegg refers to and plans to abolish are the very same rules needed by business to help them plan.

“This is yet another example of rushed thinking. It suggests that the Government is out of touch with how to support business owners. This sort of red tape is like a sledgehammer hitting small businesses which should be sources of growth and jobs.”

Sharing this sense of cautiousness though with more optimism about the scheme is Mike Emmott, Employee Relations Adviser at the CIPD, who said
“The CIPD gives a cautious welcome to the proposals announced today. We will wait to see the detail of how employers will be affected and clearly there will be problems extending the existing entitlement to paternity leave in a way that doesn’t increase uncertainty for employers.

“But it has to be right in principle to move towards a more equal sharing of the burden of childcare between mothers and fathers. There is no doubt that women are placed at a disadvantage in the labour market by employers’ concerns about the likelihood they will take time off at some stage to start a family. If men and women have similar entitlements to leave following the birth of a child, this should go a long way to relieving employers of these concerns. And this can only reduce the likelihood that women will be discriminated against when they apply for jobs, or for promotion.

Jonathan Russell, partner of ReesRussell chartered accountants, and UK200Group member is also anxious about the upheaval that Nick Clegg’s announcement will likely cause:

Maternity pay and leave has always been a management problem and cost for small businesses, and the extension to allow transferability to fathers would give a further problem to businesses.

“If a member of staff is pregnant, there is reasonable notice and steps can be taken to cover any absence but many businesses may not even be aware of impending or actual fatherhood of employees and therefore requests for time off may come out of the blue. As always, businesses can adjust for things they know are coming and it will therefore be vital that strict notice, and reasonable notice, is applied to this proposed transfer.”