It was only six months ago that the labyrinthine rules relating to shared parental leave came into force, and now a new proposal aims to extend the ambit of these rules to include grandparents. An announcement last week by George Osborne at the Conservative Party Conference revealed that working grandparents will be allowed to take time off in order to care for their grandchildren and will share in statutory shared parental pay.

Flexible working requests

The current flexible working provisions already go some way to allowing grandparents time off to do this. Since June last year, an employee who has been with their organisation for more than 26 continuous weeks is able to make a flexible working request. This includes requests to work from home or to work part-time. However, employers are not obliged to agree flexible working requests and so many grandparents may have seen flexible working requests denied. The Government’s new proposal will therefore ensure that they are legally able to take the time off that they (and their children) want in order to look after their grandchildren during the first year of its life.

The consequences should be that the parents will be able to return to work more quickly after having a baby, and that businesses will be able to retain older members of the workforce who may have otherwise felt obliged to give up their jobs to fulfil grandparent duties.

The business argument for this proposal seems solid – research shows that more than half of mothers rely on grandparents for childcare when they first return to work following maternity leave. The proposal should prove especially popular both with single mothers who don’t have a partner with whom they can share parental leave and couples in which both the mother and father are keen to return to work early.

So from the employee’s point of view, so far so good all round, with the possible exception of those grandparents who (i) need an income (ii) use work specifically to avoid prolonged engagement with their grandchildren (iii) had rather hoped that seeing their own kids leave home would give them their life back.

But what of the poor employers in all this? Already struggling to unravel the dropped knitting that is the shared parental leave regime, they will now have to deal not just with one other employer but a prospective five. Employers which may have formed a view based on the demographic make-up of their workforce that SPL is not too big a deal, may find that the burden is heavier than they thought, especially if they have chosen to enhance SPL. Perhaps the answer is that they will adopt the same degree of indifference to the new regime as was evidenced by our survey, but that must, of course, depend on the level of take-up among working grandparents themselves. Either way, it will be necessary to re-vamp family-friendly policies again, and perhaps to revisit also the issue of enhancing SPL, especially in older workforces.

As a final thought, it is to be hoped, but really not expected, that the Government has given thought to the impact of these rules on the remainder of the working population. For every grandparent who does not now leave employment, there is someone else who cannot now move into it, either at the bottom end of the chain or by way of promotion up it. We suspect that they need not worry too much – a new parent’s childcare needs do not stop at the SPL limit of 1 year, so after that there is every likelihood that the grandparents will be back in their existing position anyway.