A new start for working parents and carers?

Kate ling

In her latest blog, Kate Ling senior policy manager from the NHS European Office explores new proposals from Brussels which aim to make life easier for working parents and carers. How will they affect NHS staff and employers after Brexit?

Let’s begin with a scenario. Ruth is a nurse with a five-year-old daughter and two-year old son. She’s working part-time so she can fit her shifts around her childcare arrangements. Her husband’s boss is unsympathetic to requests for time off, for example when their son has been ill and can’t attend nursery. Ruth is an only child and her mother, who’s elderly and has had a hip operation, is about to be discharged home - so Ruth will need to sort out caring arrangements for her mum as well as coping with her own kids. What is she entitled to ask from her employer according to Agenda for Change (AfC) and local HR policies? And how might European legislation help her in future?

Currently, under UK law, Ruth and her husband have the right to up to 18 weeks’ parental leave which they can take at any time before their childrens’ eighteenth birthdays – but the catch is that it’s unpaid, so most people don’t use it. In addition, special leave for caring responsibilities generally depends on local policies as there’s no specific entitlement under AfC terms and conditions.

So what has Brussels got to do with this?

After a very long gestation period, the European Commission finally unveiled, on 26 April, its New Start initiative which consists of proposals for new laws to enable parents and carers to combine work and family life more easily.

The intention is for workers to be better able to balance work and caring responsibilities, and the proposals are deliberately framed in such a way to encourage men to share childcare more equally with women. This in turn should mean more women will be able to work full time, making full use of their abilities, contributing to the economy through taxation and reducing the future gender gap in pensions. Currently women are disproportionately poor compared with men in retirement as they have often earned less and paid in lower contributions throughout their working lives.

For me, two obvious questions spring to mind.

  1. Are the proposals better, worse or simply different from existing NHS AfC terms and conditions? What impact would they have on NHS staff and employers?
  2. With the UK leaving the EU, what difference will it make anyway? Will we even have to take any notice of new European laws?
A comparison of the new European proposals with NHS terms and conditions shows:

Paternity leave

Current UK provisions allow 2 weeks’ paid paternity leave. This is as good as, or slightly better than, the European proposals which state 10 working days paid at least the level of sick pay, so this is unlikely to impact significantly.

Parental leave

Current UK law gives parents the right to up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave to be taken at any time before their child’s eighteenth birthday. The European proposals go further than this, by proposing that each parent would be entitled to four months (approximately 18 weeks) leave, paid at a minimum of sick pay level. Leave would not be transferable from one parent to another, meaning each parent could take four months, but one parent could not take eight months. This is a deliberate proposal to encourage fathers to take up this entitlement. Parents would have the right to request to take this leave in a part-time or piecemeal way. However, unlike UK law, leave could only be taken until the child’s twelfth, not eighteenth, birthday.

In the UK, if the mother decides to return to work before her maternity leave (paid and unpaid) has been used up, shared parental leave provisions allow for a father or partner to use the remaining leave.

Carers’ leave

The biggest novelty in the new European package is the proposed introduction of a legal right for workers caring for sick or dependent relatives to take 5 days’ leave a year paid at least at sick pay level. There is no specific entitlement to carers’ leave under AfC terms and conditions. However NHS employers usually have local special leave provisions which could cover a variety of circumstances.

Right to request flexible working arrangements

The European proposals envisage extending the right to request (but not necessarily to be granted) flexible working arrangements to all working parents of children up to 12 years old, and carers with dependent relatives. In the NHS similar provisions apply, though any member of staff (not just parents or carers) can request this flexibility.

What happens next?

Like UK laws made at Westminster, these proposals will have to go through various stages before being agreed at European level and may well be amended throughout. It will take certainly take well into 2018, maybe longer, for the European Council and Parliament to debate and approve the final legislation that will apply across the European Union.

The 28 member states of the EU currently have very different domestic laws, some (for example the Scandinavian countries) have provisions that far exceed the European Commission’s proposals, other poorer countries have less generous provisions. So reaching a consensus could prove quite challenging.

Will any of this matter after Brexit?

It may do. Depending on the kind of agreement the UK negotiators reach with their EU counterparts, the UK may, in return for maximum access to the EU’s single market, agree to continue to apply European employment law as Norway has done. If this happens it will certainly matter to both NHS employers and employees.

On the other hand, if the UK seeks a ‘hard Brexit’ or fails to reach agreement with the EU at all before exiting, the UK could change employment laws in the future to diverge from European norms. Initially European legislation will continue to apply, as it will have been converted into domestic law, but it would be possible for the UK Parliament to change those laws in future.

Either way, the NHS Confederation’s European Office will be keeping a close eye on developments in Brussels to assess how the NHS will be affected and to keep NHS employers and staff informed.

Check the NHS European Office web pages and sign up to the bulletin to stay up to date with the latest news.

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