Parental leave

21 December 2020

Last updated: 17/08/2022

As an employer, you may have some employees who have children under the age of 18 and therefore have parental responsibilities.

These employees have a legal right to take parental leave for their child's wellbeing and for certain emergencies that may arise.

If you refuse or postpone their request unreasonably, they can make a claim with an employment tribunal and drag you through a lengthy process.

In this guide, we'll go through the definition and rules on parental leave and offer advice on how an employer should approach it in their business.

What is parental leave?

Your employees have the legal right to take unpaid time off from work to look after their children up to the age of 18. This is known as ordinary or unpaid parental leave.

Parental leave is normally unpaid unless you and your employees agree otherwise in their employment contract. Caring for a child doesn't always take up a parent's entire day. Depending on the circumstances, the leave could be short or long.

An employee may be taking parental leave for the following reasons:

  • To spend time on their child's welfare.
  • To look after their child during the school holidays.
  • To care for their child when they're off school sick.
  • To see new schools and attend open days with their child.
  • To settle their child into new childcare arrangements.
  • To engage in family commitments with their children.

Difference between maternity, paternity and parental leave

Maternity leave, paternity leave, and  statutory parental leave all exist to help families in caring for their children, but they are very different employee entitlements.

Parental leave is unpaid and can be taken by both mothers and fathers, regardless of whether they are biological or adoptive parents. A parent is entitled to 18 weeks of parental leave if they have worked for their employer for at least 12 months.

This is for each child up to the age of 18, is restricted to four weeks every year, and is taken in one-week increments unless the child is disabled. The entitlement is cumulative and doesn't reset with a new employer.

Maternity leave

Maternity leave is only granted to biological and surrogate mothers. It's specifically developed to help a woman cope with the final stages of pregnancy, recover after birth, and care for and feed her new baby.

Maternity leave is 52 weeks long, made up of 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks of additional maternity leave. Mothers are allowed maternity leave with no requirement of minimum service with their employer.

Maternity pay is only available if the employee has worked for their employer for 26 continuous weeks by the 15th week before the baby’s due date. They should be earning at least £123 per week.

Mothers are eligible for statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks.

Paternity leave

Paternity leave may be taken by a baby's biological father, the mother's partner, the child's adopter, or the intended parent if they are having a child through surrogacy.

If they have worked for their employer for 26 weeks prior to the 15th week before the baby's due date, they may take up to two weeks of paid leave.

Paternity leave must be taken within 56 days after the birth and must be taken in the form of one or two consecutive weeks, not individual days.

Shared parental leave

Shared parental leave allows parents to have a flexible working pattern to care for their children. It allows parents to reduce their maternity leave or statutory adoption leave to take it as shared parental leave instead.

They can share maternity leave (and pay) for child care with their husband or civil partner from the child's birth to their first birthday. The amount of shared leave can be up to 50 weeks.

Shared parental leave can also be used by parents who are adopting or surrogating a child.

Who is eligible to take parental leave?

Your employees are eligible if all of the following apply:

  • They’ve been in your company for more than a year.
  • They’re named on the child’s birth or adoption certificate or they have parental responsibility or intend to have it.
  • They’re not self-employed or a worker, such as agency workers or contractors.
  • They’re not considered a foster parent unless they’ve secured parental responsibility through the courts.
  • Their child is under the age of 18.

As the employer, you can request proof such as a birth certificate as long as it’s reasonable to do so. You can’t ask for proof each time your employee requests leave.

You can extend parental leave to those groups of your employees who aren’t eligible. Your employees should be able to check this in their staff handbook.

Shared parental leave for same sex couples

When it comes to same-sex relationships, only one person in the relationship may take maternity leave. Their partner, regardless of sex, has the option of taking paternity leave or parental leave.

If they don't take all of their maternity leave, they can exchange some of it for shared parental leave.

How long is parental leave?

Each parent has up to 18 weeks of parental leave for each child under the age of 18. Qualifying employees should take parental leave in either of the following options:

  • Blocks of a week each time.
  • A maximum of four weeks per child each year.

A "week" is the amount of time they generally need to work in a 7-day period. For example, if they normally work three days a week, one week is equivalent to three working days.

If they take more than four weeks in a block, they're only entitled to return to their old job if it is reasonably practicable. If it isn’t, you as the employer must give them a comparable and appropriate job.

If their child is disabled, the leave need not be taken over a whole week. They can take parental leave more flexibly if they receive a disability living allowance or personal independence payment for their child.

For example, they can take one or two days' leave rather than blocks of a week at a time.

How much do employees get paid during parental leave?

Parental leave is unpaid, however, you can agree in the employment contract to compensate your employees during this period.

If they're in couples, the rules for their partner are the same as for shared parental leave. They and their partners might also be allowed to receive statutory adoption pay and statutory paternity pay.

If you award them bonuses for parental leave, make sure to include all of the details in the bonus scheme's terms and conditions.

One of the main obstacles to women returning to the workplace is the inability to organise child care. A flexible working schedule that permits taking leave makes this possible.

Paid leave allows low-income parents to fulfil their parental responsibility.

The rules for taking any of the shared parental pay are generally the same as for taking shared parental leave. The differences are as follows before the 15th week prior to the due date:

  • They also must have earned at least £123 a week on average for 8 weeks.
  • They don’t need to have been an employee as long as they paid national insurance through PAYE for at least 26 weeks.

Government benefits

Low income employees who are taking parental leave to look after a child living with them can apply for Income Support. This advice applies only if they were entitled to the following benefits on the day before their leave began:

  • Housing benefit.
  • Council tax benefit.
  • Working tax credit.
  • Child tax credit.

Some of your employees may have been receiving statutory maternity pay and have not returned to work due to a sickness or disability that affected their ability to work. In this case, they may be allowed to receive a support allowance.

Importance of paid parental leave

Paid parental leave can have important effects both for you and your employees.

It makes it easier for mothers to increase their breastfeeding time, as well as for both men and women to stay in the labour market and bond with their kids.

The following are some of the most important effects that paid parental leave can have for you as an employer:

Improved employee retention

Policies on paid parental leave encourage employees to return to work. This is beneficial for them, as it maintains their career progression.

As an employer, you gain increased productivity, motivated staff, and lower employee turnover.

For example, a woman who takes paid leave to look after a child after birth has a higher chance of keeping her job for nine to twelve months than a woman who doesn't.

Attract and retain new talent

Every perk provided as part of the employee value proposition matters in a competitive market. Many of the market's best talents may be working parents, depending on your industry.

An employer that provides paid parental leave to their employees benefits not only from maintaining talent but also from attracting top talent.

Improve family wellbeing and mental health

It's difficult to choose between working and being a parent. Employees who know they have the option to take parental leave to care for their children save time and money on childcare.

Parental leave would also be beneficial to children's well-being and mental health. Increased bonding and interaction with family in the early years of life can lead to better health and development outcomes for children.

How to manage parental leave in the workplace

When dealing with a request for parental leave, you have the right to request verification of the employee's eligibility. For example, a birth or adoption certificate, a parental order, or proof of parental responsibility or the disability of the child.

It's a good idea to include the right to unpaid parental leave in your HR policies, even if you only implement the statutory scheme in your company.

If you provide a better scheme, for example allowing employees to take more than 4 weeks of unpaid parental leave every year, this should also be mentioned in your policy.

Develop a parental leave policy

As an employer, you should have a policy in place that outlines employment rights and the rules and procedures for employees who wish to take parental leave.

In the policy, you should clarify eligibility, entitlement and the correct notice that you expect your employees to provide you.

Also, ask them to notify you of their intention to return to work and of the date on which they want to return.

Refusing your employee's request

You can't refuse an employee's request for parental leave as long as they are eligible. However, if the employee's proposed dates will significantly disrupt your business, you could be able to postpone the request for up to six months.

The only circumstances where an employer has a right to refuse their employee's parental leave is if:

  • They are ineligible for this type of leave.
  • They want to take shared parental leave in a way not permitted by the scheme.
  • They are submitting a single booking notice for a discontinuous period of leave (for example, multiple blocks of leave in the same notice).

Any request for parental leave that is meant to be taken right away once a child has been born or adopted must not be postponed. Once a request has been postponed, you can't postpone the employee's entitlement again without their consent.

There is a specific procedure that must be followed if you postpone the employee's request for parental leave. You must give written notice of the postponement within seven days of the request, along with documented reasons for your decision.

After discussing with the employee, you must also provide alternative start and end dates for the length of leave within 6 months of the requested start date.

Adding parental leave to paternity leave

Your employees can use parental leave to make their paternity leave longer if either:

  • They are the biological father.
  • Their partner is having a baby, adopting a child or having a child through a surrogacy arrangement.

They could take parental leave once their baby is born or adoption placement starts before they take paternity leave.

As the employer, you cannot postpone their leave if they choose to take it straight after the child is born or adopted.

If they want to take parental leave this way, they should inform you at least 21 days before their baby is due or their adoption placement is due to start.

Get advice on parental leave from Peninsula

Working parents have the legal right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to look after their kids and spend time with them. This is referred to as parental leave, and as an employer, you should be aware of your employees' parental leave entitlements.

If you unreasonably refuse or postpone their request, they have the right to file a claim with an employment tribunal.

Peninsula offers 24/7 HR advice which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our HR experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 051 3687 and book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants.

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