Family-friendly rights have been in the news of late, with the right to request flexible working extended in June 2014, increased entitlements to attend antenatal and adoption appointments on the way and a new system of shared parental leave due to come into effect next year. Liam Lane, solicitor at Brodies LLP, looks at the potential for extending these rights to benefit grandparents.
A recent study – commissioned by Grandparents Plus, Save the Children and the Family and Childcare Trust – has suggested that grandparents should also be provided with additional family-friendly rights. This follows findings that 1.9 million people have reduced their working hours, given up their job or taken time off to care for grandchildren.
The report argues that a new right to grandparental leave would help grandparents look after their grandchildren while staying in work. So, what are the options?
Flexible working – a possible starting point?
The right to request flexible working was previously restricted to mothers, fathers, adopters, guardians and foster parents (and their partners), meaning that the majority of grandparents were not eligible.
Since 30 June 2014, however, virtually all employees (provided they have 26 weeks’ continuous service) have been entitled to make a flexible working request. Flexible working comes in many forms – including part-time hours, flexi-time, working from home and term-time working – and it seems that it could help at least some grandparents participate in caring for their grandchildren.
There are limitations to the right, however, which means it might not suit all grandparents. In particular, there is no automatic entitlement to be granted flexible working. An employer can refuse a request on a number of grounds, such as the burden of additional costs or the inability to reorganise work between existing staff. Granting a request also amounts to a contractual variation of an employee’s terms and conditions, and some grandparents may be put off by the potential permanence of such a move.
The new system of shared parental leave
A new system of shared parental leave is due to come into force in December 2014. This will allow a child’s mother to shorten her statutory maternity leave, so that the child’s other parent can share the balance of the leave (with similar provisions applying to adoptive parents).
It seems possible that this system could be extended to allow grandparents to share the leave (although there are no plans for this yet). This could help grandparents who wish to take over the care of a baby or recently-adopted child, in order to allow the parents to return to work as soon as possible.
A common concern about the new system, however, is that sharing leave may be complicated to organise in practice (particularly if the child’s parents have different employers). Increasing the number of people who are entitled to a share would confuse matters further. In addition, the system might not be appropriate for grandparents who wish to contribute to their grandchild’s care but are unwilling to reduce the amount of leave available to the child’s parents.
Extending the existing right to parental leave
Another possibility is to extend the existing system of parental leave (which is unrelated to the new shared parental leave) to cover grandchildren. Qualifying employees who have parental responsibility for a child receive a “bank” of 18 weeks’ unpaid leave, which they can use up until the child’s fifth birthday (or 18th birthday if the child is disabled).
An entitlement to leave of this kind may be particularly useful for grandparents who wish to look after their grandchildren for short periods, rather than take on responsibility for their long-term care. An example could be when grandparents look after their grandchildren to allow the children’s parents to go on holiday.
A possible issue with extending the system, however, is that parents are currently granted 18 weeks’ leave per child. Employers may therefore have concerns that grandparents with large families would gain a large amount of leave. Another potential hurdle is that an employee’s entitlement to parental leave is based on the concept of “parental responsibility” for a child, meaning that the majority of grandparents are not currently eligible. In order to allow grandparents to access the system, it might be necessary to develop a new concept of “grandparental responsibility”.
It remains to be seen whether or not a new right to grandparental leave will be introduced. Given the UK’s ageing workforce, however, it seems probable that the debate will remain.