Shared parental leave may be extended to grandparents to reflect the growing role they play in childcare – and companies need to be prepared, says Ben Daniel

Research shows that more than half of parents rely on grandparents for childcare when the mother first goes back to work after maternity leave, and around seven million UK grandparents are involved with childcare. Evidence also suggests that British grandparents are twice as likely to be in paid employment as their counterparts in other European countries. The combination of these statistics points to a disparity between the needs of families for grandparents to be involved in caring for children, and the freedom and time available to them to help.

The potential impact of this on employers was shown by the government’s announcement in its spring budget 2016 of a consultation into whether shared parental leave (SPL) should be extended to grandparents. SPL was a milestone piece of family friendly legislation designed to allow new mothers to share their maternity leave with their partner. The government’s stated intention to widen the parameters of the scheme to allow mothers to share leave with grandparents reflects the changing shape of the family unit and recognises the growing role grandparents play in caring for children.

Existing rights for grandparents

Grandparents are already catered for under the right to request flexible working, available to all employees with longer than 26 weeks’ service. However, at present, grandparents have no right under UK employment law to paid or unpaid leave to spend time with their grandchildren in their capacity as grandparents.

Grandparents may have the right to reasonable unpaid time off, at their employer’s discretion, to care for dependant grandchildren in an emergency (depending on the family setup). They will also have the right to statutory parental leave (limited to 18 weeks per child, to be taken before the child’s 18th birthday) when they have formal parental responsibility for a child, either by way of adoption or a residence order. However, these circumstances are rare. Such leave is unpaid, so less attractive than paid SPL might be, but is in some ways more flexible, because SPL entitlement must be used within 12 months of a child’s birth.

There has been little visible progress on the consultation to extend the SPL scheme – which was due to be published in May – but it remains an important issue for employers.

What should employees be mindful of?

If the SPL scheme is extended, it is likely that mothers will be able to share leave with grandparents in the same way they can currently share it with fathers/partners. Many different and complex arrangements are possible, but leave sharing could involve grandparents taking up to 50 weeks out of work. Employers should consider how they can look to future-proof their businesses against this potential change.

The first step for businesses is to consider the make-up of their individual workforces: how many grandparents do you employ? It’s an obvious point, but one that will be helpful when considering what, if any, impact the proposed regulations will have. Existing succession-planning efforts may need to be reviewed if a greater proportion of your staff will be eligible to apply for SPL.

It’s also worth thinking about how many formal requests for flexible working and SPL have been submitted by your employees already. Take-up of SPL by mothers and fathers has been lower than anticipated since it came into force in April 2015 – likely because of persisting cultural expectations and financial implications. It is still expected that mothers will take the lion’s share of time off, and it can make more financial sense for families to take this route as many employers have chosen to offer only statutory levels of pay for fathers taking SPL.

For grandparents, these dynamics may be very different. Older people who are closer to retirement may be more willing to take extended leave than a mother in the early part of her career. The extension of SPL to grandparents may result in fewer mothers taking extended periods out of work and may further reduce the already low numbers of working fathers applying for shared leave.

Whatever type of family leave employees want to take – whether ordinary parental leave or, in future, SPL – it is crucial for organisations to carefully plan for their absence and subsequent return to work to ensure continuity of service and a smooth handover of responsibilities. The option for grandparents to take SPL is unlikely to be a priority in a packed post-Brexit legislative timetable, but it is worth considering and planning for the potential implications for your business.

Ben Daniel is a partner in the employment, pensions and immigration department at Weightmans