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Paternity Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Volume 836: debated on Monday 26 February 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, I am delighted to be here today for this debate on the draft regulations, which will benefit working families by providing valuable additional flexibility to paternity leave working alongside the paternity pay regulations.

Currently, eligible employed fathers and partners are entitled to one or two consecutive weeks of statutory paternity leave and pay to care for their baby or support the mother. This must be taken within eight weeks of birth or placement for adoption. These regulations recognise the importance of fathers and partners spending valuable time with their children in the first year following birth or adoption and will make it easier for parents to take their full paternity entitlement.

We know that having more flexibility in how paternity leave and pay can be taken is important to families. We consulted on this in 2019 through the Good Work Plan: Proposals to Support Families. We found that 64% of respondents wanted greater flexibility in when and how paternity leave could be taken. Allowing fathers and partners to take their leave up to a year following birth or adoption was the most commonly suggested measure to accomplish this. Our changes will provide this much-needed flexibility. These regulations will fulfil our 2019 manifesto commitment to make paternity leave easier to take. I want to set out briefly how they will do this.

Our first change will allow fathers and partners to take their leave in non-consecutive blocks. Currently, only one block of leave can be taken, which can be either one or two weeks. Our change will remove this barrier by enabling parents to take two non-consecutive weeks of leave. We hope that providing fathers and partners with the flexibility to take their two weeks of leave non-consecutively means that they will find it easier to use their full entitlement and take their second week of leave. For some parents, taking two weeks of leave in one go is challenging due to pressures of work or for other reasons. Enabling parents to take their leave non-consecutively means they can take their leave at a time that works best for them and could lead to an increase in parents taking their second week of paternity leave.

Our second change will allow fathers and partners to take their leave and pay at any point in the first year after the birth or placement for adoption of their child. This represents a big increase from the eight weeks following birth or adoption in which parents currently must take their leave. This change gives parents more flexibility to take their paternity leave at a time that works best for their family. For example, this change could enable a father or partner to take time off work to be the primary caregiver when the mother returns to work. This is important as evidence shows that fathers who spend time solo parenting are more likely to play a greater role in caring for their children in later years.

Our third change will shorten the notice period required for each period of leave. The new regulations will require an employee to give only four weeks’ notice prior to each period of leave instead of 14 weeks before the expected week of childbirth. This means that a parent can decide when to take their leave at shorter notice to accommodate the changing needs of their families. This will apply to parents in birth and surrogacy scenarios, as the notification rules are different for adopters. This will also allow fathers/partners to change the number and dates of blocks of leave they plan to take. Responses to the Good Work Plan consultation show that both employers’ and employees’ groups considered this to be a fair and practical option. These regulations will work alongside the Statutory Paternity Pay (Amendment) Regulations 2024 to make both paternity leave and paternity pay more flexible and easier for fathers and partners to take.

The Government have in place a range of leave and pay entitlements to support parents to balance their work and family responsibilities in a way that works best for them. For families who would prefer for a father or partner to take a longer period of leave, shared parental leave may be available. This entitlement allows eligible parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them. Parents can also choose whether to take time off together or to stagger their leave and pay.

The Government are also introducing new entitlements to enhance the current provision for working parents, which include the following. Additional protections against redundancy will, from 6 April 2024, be available for pregnant women and parents who are returning to work after a period of eligible parental leave. On improvements to flexible working, the Flexible Working (Amendment) Regulations 2023 will, from 6 April 2024, mean that employees can request flexible working from their first day of employment, empowering them to ask for a working arrangement that suits them and their particular circumstances. On the introduction of carers’ leave, this new entitlement will, again from 6 April 2024, give unpaid carers one week of leave from work from their first day in a new job. This leave can be used to provide care or to make arrangements for the provision of care for a dependant with a long-term care need.

The Government are also introducing new leave and pay entitlement for parents of children who spend time in neonatal care. This will give each eligible employed parent up to 12 weeks of additional paid leave on top of their existing entitlements if their baby is admitted to neonatal care in its first month of life. It will ensure that parents no longer find themselves in the incredibly difficult position of having to choose between risking their job and spending time with their baby during such a stressful time.

Given all that, I beg to move this statutory instrument.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his presentation, which was very clear, and I welcome the movements that this statutory instrument represents. It is important to add more flexibility, to do things such as reducing notice, and to extend the period by which this leave can be used. The Minister is correct: the ability for fathers to spend time with their babies at this early stage is an extremely vital part of improving the level of parenting going forward.

However, we have to be a bit realistic, in that we have an economy that is gradually moving towards an informal employment model, whether it is gig economy or zero hours, which means that an increasing number of people are missed out by this sort of measure. Then, of course, we have straightforward self-employed people, who are not part of this, and people who have not been working for long enough for their business. That starts to leave out a large number of people. I cannot give the exact number, but at least a quarter of fathers are not eligible because of those issues; it is probably more because the gig economy is increasing. I urge the Minister and the Government to consult with all of us about ways those fathers can be brought into the system, because at the moment there is a danger that they will slip through the net.

We will be going into the election with a manifesto commitment to an increase in the amount of paternity leave that is available and in the level of flexibility. I am sure that His Majesty’s loyal Opposition will say something similar in a minute, perhaps with more specificity. However, I will make a special mention of those businesses that go beyond the law. Many businesses go way past the legal minimum, and one way of moving this forward is for the Government to recognise, praise and celebrate businesses that do far more than the current legal limit. They recognise that the fathers in their business benefit, not just as fathers but as employees. I think the Government and all of us can spend time celebrating that.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I welcome this SI, as far as it goes. As he said, it is welcome, but this is not groundbreaking; we are talking about small moves in timescale, the length of leave, when it can be taken and the number of opportunities to take it. On the previous SI, we were all declaring our interests. My interest in paternity leave finished 21 years ago, when my youngest child passed his first birthday, but I declare my interest in a number of businesses that I advise, all of which treat their employees at a better and higher level than the legal minimum that this sets—and I shall come back to that.

The SI, Explanatory Memorandum, impact assessment and the Minister’s introduction are all very clear. As I said at the start, this is welcome, but I have a few questions to raise. If the Minister cannot answer them, I am more than happy for him to write to me and place a record of that letter in the Library with answers to some of the specifics—but we support this SI going through.

To work through the regulations, one thing that I was not clear about is the territorial application, which is England and Wales and Scotland. Why does it not also cover Northern Ireland? I was interested in that.

Let us look at flexibility. When I did take paternity leave—Jeez, 23 or 24 years ago—my employer at the time, GMB trade union, offered two weeks, which could be taken within the first year, but there was no period that you had to take. These regs will cover two one-week blocks. Twenty-four years ago, I was able to take the first week, then my wife and I decided that I would take every Friday for the next five weeks, because she had help and support earlier in the week, and Fridays were the time that I could take to spend time with our child and allow her some respite. That flexibility of having one day a week for the next five weeks was a different way of taking it, but that is not covered by the regulations. So, just to take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, a bit further, did the department look at widening that flexibility so that it could be taken as individual days?

I fully welcome it being within the first year, and the notice period is also more than welcome. The Minister noted that the first consultation was post the general election following a manifesto commitment in 2019. We are now in 2024, so I am wondering why it took so long to get here, because this is a positive move. The impact assessment, again, is spot on and covers all the right issues.

I am looking at flexibility for a reason. If we look at page 9 of the impact assessment, it looks at the take-up assumptions. Right now, we are on 74% for week one and 66% for week two. A large number of partners and fathers are not taking the second week, so this is about redressing that. However, the assumption is that the second week will move up to a central figure of 70%, which is an increase of only 4%. Even if we get to the high-end assumption of 74%, it is an increase of only 8%. Any increase is welcome, but is there more that the department can do to help general uptake on the first week? With these changes, there is no expectation that week one uptake would increase. Is there more that we could do on advertising and marketing to show and share the benefits of this? Looking at the finances of it, they are relatively small.

The Minister touched on the neonatal issue as well. I have a genuine question for information. Obviously, when there is a notice period, it is for four weeks. If you have a premature birth, or it is an adoption and things move quicker, that four-week period may be too much. The Minister touched on this but I did not quite get the detail of it. If there is a premature birth, what are the rules in terms of the partner or father being able to move quickly in order to take time off? I presume that many premature births end up in hospital but I am sure that support from the partner or father would be very willing. Can the Minister say anything on that?

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, touched on the gig economy so there is no need for me to repeat what he said.

With that, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, we will come back to the manifesto in due course, but now is not the time to set out what our policy would be for the next election. We on these Benches support these regulations.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, for making the point about the declaration of interests. I hope that, for once, I also have no interests to declare in a debate and no need to apologise after the event for not declaring them—but who knows? What is important is that the nation will benefit, and we may too; that is a good thing. I will answer some of the questions asked but am happy to follow up with answers to some of the more specific questions in writing.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, made some important points about celebrating and congratulating businesses that go beyond the statutory minimum. We should bear this in mind. I do not have the statistics on how businesses function in terms of percentages and performance but, to be honest, all the businesses that I have ever worked around or been involved with have always operated a different process for paternity leave, maternity leave and so on. That is a great thing; we should not forget it. These are minimum standards. It is important that I emphasise that. This should not be “the” standard, as it were; we hope for and expect companies—indeed, all bodies—to try to go beyond it. As the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, rightly said—28 years ago, was it?

Yes—24 years ago, the noble Lord had a greater degree of flexibility then than these minimum standards imply. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for raising that.

I also thank the noble Lord for making a point about the self-employed. Mothers are eligible for maternity leave as self-employed persons but self-employed fathers are not eligible for paternity leave. I have not covered this area in my ministerial work but I would be comfortable going back to my colleagues and asking them to scrutinise the opportunities there further. Bearing in mind that self-employed people—again, I have been self-employed to some extent—have very different working patterns and living patterns, we should not necessarily conflate the two, but it is absolutely right to review and assess how we as a society support families and carers of babies and children.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, made a number of important points. The first related to Northern Ireland. This area of legislation is devolved to Northern Ireland. We assume that it will follow the legislative work we are doing today—we cannot guarantee that but it is the assumption; there is some shaking of heads and nodding behind me—but, clearly, we believe that these minimum standards should be applied, certainly across Great Britain.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, asked whether we looked at widening flexibility. I do not have the answer to that because I was not engaged in the preparation of this legislation, but I will come back to him, if that is acceptable. All these measures are always taken in the light of balancing our desire to create the sort of society that we want with the need for economic growth and bearing in mind how businesses function. The issue with all these pieces of legislation and regulations is that they apply across the board to all businesses, and some businesses, particularly very small ones, can often find compliance difficult. They might not have the flexibility over the professional employee basis that many noble Lords here may be more used to, so I have some sympathy with the need to be quite clear about ensuring that these are minimum rather than general standards and that they can be operated by all companies across the economy.

I noted the noble Lord’s last point: 74% take-up of week 1, and 64%—or low 60s—take-up of week 2. That is precisely why we are making these changes: to encourage fathers to take that second week. We believe that additional flexibility will allow that.

The noble Lord asked about neonatal care regulations. I believe they are to come into play on 6 April, and they are also entitlements from day 1. If that is not the case, I will let him know. As far as I understand it, they operate slightly differently from paternity leave, but I am happy to clarify exactly what those new entitlements will be. Again, they will be a very important, welcome relief for many parents in an extremely difficult situation.

With that, I am grateful to noble Lords for their input in this valuable and important debate. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.