Will you be affected by new paternity laws?

Published by Rebecca Rutt on 22 March 2011.
Last updated on 12 August 2011

Family on couch

Are you a new dad wishing you could spend more time with your little ones? Now it could become a possibility: parenting laws are about to change, giving new fathers the opportunity to take more time off.

Fathers with a baby due on 3 April or after will be eligible for additional paternity leave, giving them up to 26 weeks leave in the first year of their baby's life, as long as the mother is back at work or has stopped claiming maternity pay.

It's hoped the UK will follow in the footsteps of countries like Sweden where men and women have equal rights to 16 months' leave per child.

However, as women currently earn 56% of men's earnings, in reality reduced income is likely to prevent many fathers from taking advantage of the new legislation.

Full-time dad Matthew Poulter, 30, from Leeds, says: "This is good news. We're not living in the 1900s - the law should have been changed before now."

However, he admits "it's unlikely much will happen any time soon; mothers will probably continue to be the main carer for the first year".

Q: What are the current rules and how will they change?

A: Currently, women are entitled to six weeks' maternity leave on 90% pay, followed by 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay of £124.88 a week.

Men are allowed two weeks of paternity leave, also at £124.88 a week. Parents will now be able to share 46 weeks of parental leave, so if the mother returns to work after 20 weeks, the father can take over the mother's leave on statutory pay for the remaining 26 weeks.

Q: How do you qualify?

A: To qualify for leave you need to have been with your employer for at least 26 weeks. To be paid while on leave, the time must be taken off to care for the child and the child's mother must have returned to work and ceased claiming any relevant pay.

You must also earn at least the lower earnings limit for national insurance contributions.

Q: When do you need to tell your employer?

A: You must tell your employer in writing at least eight weeks before you want to start your leave. You can find the forms on the Department for Work and Pensions' website (dwp.gov.uk).

You'll need to confirm details of the child's birth, show proof you are the father of the child or partner of the mother of the child, and that, second to the mother, you have the main responsibility for the child.

Q: Can it refuse your request?

A: Yes, but it has to provide a reason why. If your request is refused, you may be able to take annual leave or unpaid parental leave instead. You have the right to take unpaid leave if you meet the eligibility criteria for leave but not for pay.

Throughout your additional paternity leave you continue to be an employee, unless your contract is ended by you or your employer. All leave taken after the end of the statutory paternity pay period is unpaid.

Q: What if you're not an employee?

A: If you're not an employee but an agency worker, office holder or subcontractor, you normally won't have the right to additional paternity leave. However, you may be eligible for pay if you meet the other qualifying criteria and have stopped working in order to care for the child.

Q: How are the new rules going to affect businesses?

A: Some small businesses are concerned about the extra paperwork involved with additional paternity leave and the problems of how it will work.

John Walker, national chairman, Federation of Small Businesses, says family leave should be tailored to suit each individual, as a one-size-fits-all approach fails to adapt to those needs.

He thinks the new system could prevent small businesses taking on staff because they won't be able to cope with the extra costs and loss of employees for extended time periods.

I'm happy to take paternity leave: Christopher O'Conner (31), art technician, Southampton

Chris is in a different situation to most men as his wife Viv is the main breadwinner in the family. His son Elliott was born on 2 December 2010 and Chris is in favour of the new rules because, when 30-year-old Viv, a nurse, goes back to work, he'll become the main carer for his son.

The couple live in Southampton and Chris says additional paternity leave recognises the changing economic situation of most families. It's much more common nowadays for couples to earn either the same, or for the woman to earn more.

Looking back to Elliott's birth, he says the first two weeks were very hard, and although Chris was lucky enough to be able to take four weeks off, because the birth was just before his annual two weeks leave, he says this is not enough time for most dads.

"If everything went smoothly, two weeks might be enough, but however organised you are, you can't plan anything with a new baby," he says.

Chris thinks additional paternity leave will "promote more of a partnership between mothers and fathers" and help parents bond with their new baby and support each other.

"In this day and age, there shouldn't be any prejudice about the roles of men and women in looking after babies, and it's good for parents to have the option of taking extra time off, especially as childcare costs are so high," he adds.

"But every couple and every baby is different, so no rule can apply to everyone. Viv and I work well together and make a good team but this won't be appropriate for all parents."

I wouldn't take it: Simon Kew (37), senior manager, London

When Simon and Melanie's children, Libby (12) and Jack (9), were born, Simon took a total of eight days off work for each of them, but experienced increased pressure at work, combined with the need to support his wife and look after the new baby.

He thinks the new law will not mean a great deal to most fathers as there won't be huge numbers of working dads who could manage this drop in their salary.

But he admits every situation is different: "If mother and baby are doing fine and the father's simply getting in the way, then two weeks are ample. But if there are complications with the birth the situation could change".

Simon experienced increased work pressures. "I was expected to be at my desk as much as possible," he says, making it impossible to be both a new father and stay on top of his career.

"Taking two weeks away from the office would have been unofficially frowned upon, to say the least, and to consider taking 26 weeks off - I think I would have been shot in the street."

Simon is the higher earner of the family, and for his wife to return to work, while his salary was reduced, would be, he says, "totally unmanageable". When their children were born his wife Melanie went back to work at first but, as many couples find, their childcare costs were higher than her earnings, so it was more cost-effective for Melanie to stay at home.

When asked about the business side of things, Simon says discrimination in the workplace will still exist around the issue of mothers taking maternity leave, even if it's not put into practice, and this could now begin happening to men.

Although he thinks they might not change anything immediately, Simon says the new laws are progressive as "the days of only the mother staying at home are past - and these days they are often the higher earners. The costs of childcare can also be prohibitive, so anything that can provide greater flexibility must be seen as a positive step."