Brexit – Better or Worse for Working Parents?
My first instinct when discovering that we will now leave the EU was dismay and shock. Next was concern: what lies ahead? Nobody can say. There are certainly lots of things to worry about.
But as managing director of an executive coaching consultancy that specialises in Parental Transition coaching, my biggest concern was that the far-sighted parental rights won over the last 40 years and which now contribute so much to workplace gender equality might unravel.
However a bit of research has calmed my fears, to some extent.
Although it is true to say that much of the law we have in the UK has been derived from EU provisions for employment protection and equality in the workplace, it is wrong to think that the UK has been dragged reluctantly into accepting these directives.
Much has been made of the “EU bureaucratic red tape that stymies enterprise” by the pro-Brexit contingent and yet when I look specifically at the laws around maternity and paternity leave what is striking is the extent to which UK law has gone beyond EU requirements. (* see end for a summary of Workers Rights introduced by UK and by EU.)
In fact, when it comes to improving the rights that workers have, we lead the field.
- Take maternity leave: the UK 2006 Work and Families Act extended maternity leave to 52 weeks, which is way beyond the 14 weeks prescribed by European law.
- More recently the UK has elected to offer nine months of statutory maternity pay, something that our US counterparts can only dream of.
- We have also improved provision for dads. New fathers (including adoptive parents) now have the right to two weeks’ paid time off on the birth of a child – something which our very own Paternity Coach Tom Beardshaw was instrumental in lobbying for.
- With the introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015, the UK yet again set the pace when it came to looking after the interest of working parents.
- Another important area where the UK – not the EU – has been instrumental in protecting parents’ interests is in protecting the right to work flexibly.
In so many of the industries in which I work, the biggest barrier to retaining female talent in particular is a grudging acceptance of flexible working. Even though younger men are showing clear signs of a desire for more flexible working patterns, in the majority of instances, it is still the woman who is the primary carer (even if she is the primary earner) and so flexible working requests are more likely to be made by women.
- Again, it is UK law which has led the way here: the 2002 Employment Act introduced the right to request Flexible Working for those with parental or caring responsibilities and this was extended to all employees in 2014.
The point of this roll call is to allay fears that our maternity and paternity leave rights will disappear should the nature of our relationship with the EU change.
Given that it is the UK, not the EU, which has made the running in these cases, I cannot see that winding down our relationship with Europe will result in the repeal of the many laws that protect parents in the short term.
But in the medium term it would be wrong to be wholly unconcerned about the implications of Brexit.
For a start, as the Government looks at areas where it might strengthen our international competitiveness and win over UK employers, a relaxation of our employment laws could well be on the cards.
Even if that is not the case, there is a worry that future UK legislation may not be as pioneering as it has been without the influence of the EU.
As the Brexiteers fulfill their promise of ‘taking control’ it is hard to see that a pipeline of family-friendly policy which gives new rights to fathers and carers and stronger maternity protection will ever materialise.
So although for working parents things may not get worse post-Brexit, there is a very real possibility that the statutory support on offer today could be as good as it gets.
*Summary of Workers Rights introduced by UK and by EU first published by Working Families. www.workingfamilies.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Timeline-of-Workers-Rights.pdf
Geraldine Gallacher is the Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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