Fathers will be able to share parental leave to care for babies and will have greater access to their children after couples divorce, under government plans.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg promised “unprecedented support for parents” with a new Children and Families Bill, which also contained measures to make it easier to adopt, and more support for children with special needs.
Parents’ groups “cautiously welcomed” the proposals but business leaders warned that making parental leave more flexible would impose complex “burdens” on employers.
Officials said current rules on maternity and paternity leave were “outdated” because they presumed that women will do the “vast majority” of caring for infants.
A spokesman for the Department for Business said: “Parents should be able to choose their childcare arrangements for themselves.”
There were few details about how the new flexible parental leave arrangements could work. Possible options include allowing mothers to return to work and transfer up to nine months of a year’s parental leave to fathers.
However, business groups criticised the move. John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, warned that companies would face “endless” legal challenges and grievances resulting from “gender-neutral” parental leave.
“Ministers have chosen to ignore the fact that a complex new system of shared parental leave brings fiendish complexity and huge uncertainty for employers,” he said. “These proposals will hit business at precisely the time ministers are asking companies to create jobs and spur growth.
“While most businesspeople identify with the idea of gender-neutral parental leave, they’ve warned time and again that the Government’s proposals are unwieldy, difficult to understand and fraught with potential complications.”
Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors, also warned that allowing parental leave to be shared risked adding to the burden on companies.
“The Government should be careful not to use this as an opportunity to increase levels of leave,” he said. “Sharing the allowance is fine, but putting heavier burdens on business in these tough times would not be a sensible move.”