Father and son. Credit: Bigstock

Parental leave

Introduction to parental leave

Parental leave is a legal right to take time off from work to look after a child or make arrangements for a child’s welfare. Employers are not legally required to pay workers taking parental leave, so many do not. However, if you are on a low income, you may qualify for income support while you are on parental leave.

Mothers and fathers qualify for statutory parental leave whether they are biological or adoptive parents.

Parental leave is different to other parenting-related leave arrangements such as maternity, adoption and paternity leave.

Your parenting leave entitlement

Working parents are entitled to take up to 18 weeks’ parental leave per child up to their eighteenth birthday.

Parental leave can be taken for any reason as long as it’s related to the care of your child. Examples of the way it might be used include:

  • spending more time with your child in their early years;
  • accompanying your child during a stay in hospital;
  • looking at new schools;
  • settling your child into new childcare arrangements;
  • enabling your family to spend more time together. For example, taking them to stay with grandparents.

If you take less than four weeks’ parental leave in one block, you have the legal right to return to your old job. If you take more than four weeks in a block, you are only entitled to return to the job you did before if it is reasonably practicable. If it isn’t, your employer must give you a comparable and appropriate job.

You can only take parental leave if you have been continuously employed for not less than a year and have, or expect to have responsibility for the child.

“Responsibility for the child” is a legal term. You will normally have responsibility for the child if you are the mother of the child or the father of the child and you are either married to the mother of the child or your name appears on the birth certificate of the child, having registered jointly with the mother.

You may also have legally acquired parental responsibility.  Check with your UNISON rep if you are unsure.

Special arrangements

Some employers allow flexibility in the way parental leave is taken. You might, therefore, be able to work reduced hours over a given period, for example, without losing any pay. Or your employer may allow you parental leave even though your child is over the statutory age for you to legally qualify.

Check with your UNISON rep whether any special arrangements have been negotiated with your employer.

Dealing with emergencies

Even if you don’t qualify for parental leave, you should be able to get time off to deal with genuine emergencies. You have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with certain emergencies involving people you care for.

You qualify for “time off for dependents” regardless of how long you have been working for your employer.

Next steps for UNISON reps

Negotiate with your employer on parental leave if you think parents are not able to exercise their right to parental leave or if there is no policy in place where you work.

Make sure your members know about any local arrangements in place with your employer.

Key facts
  • You have the right to take time off to look after your children until they are five years old.
  • Parental leave gives you time to care for your children in the first five years of their lives (or until they are 18 if they are disabled or for the earlier of the first five years of their placement and their 18th birthday if they are adopted)
  • Your employer doesn’t have to pay you for parental leave, but it’s worth checking to see if any special arrangements have been made where you work.

FAQs

Parental leave

  • What if I don’t qualify for parental leave but need time off to look after my family?

    You could take paid holiday, ask your employer for unpaid time off, or ask about flexible working

    If it’s a genuine emergency, you have the right to take a reasonable amount of time off to deal with it, although this will be unpaid.

  • If I decide to take a case to an employment tribunal, do I have to do it within a particular time?

    You are strongly advised to make any complaint within three months of the matters complained of or your case is not likely to be heard.

    By the time you make your official complaint, you should also have put your grievance in writing to your employer and given them some time to respond (although you should be aware that doing so does not postpone the time limit for making a complaint to the employment tribunal).

    Speak to your UNISON rep about the best way to proceed.

  • What if my employer tries to stop me taking parental leave or treats me badly for requesting it?

    You can complain to an employment tribunal if your employer has unreasonably postponed your parental leave or stopped or tried to stop you from taking it.

    You also have the right not to be dismissed or subjected to any unfavourable treatment (such as harassment, downgrading your job or cutting your pay) under the Employment Rights Act because you have taken or requested parental leave.

  • How long do I need to have been in my job to qualify for parental leave?

    The law says you qualify for parental leave once you have been in your job for one year, but there may be different arrangements where you work – check with your employer or UNISON rep.

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