All About Age: "Grand plans" - Older Workers and Flexibility

7 minute read
30 October 2015

Flexible working, working families and the family support network is once again making the headlines. On this occasion however the focus is not on parents and the well-trodden path of work-life balance, child care costs, "nursery v mothers" for optimum early years development but something rather different.

No-one can have failed to notice the considerable press coverage sparked by George Osborne's announcement on 4 October 2015 of his commitment to introduce "grand parental" or "granny" leave.

Extending the right to leave so that leave can be shared between not just the parents but also working grandparents is not a novel concept but this recent proposal approaches the issue in a different way.

Why is this being proposed?

With an aging population likely to work for longer and with adults between 50-67 predicted to account for a third of the workplace by 2020, it seems a natural progression to look at ways in which older workers can access family leave to support their children and grandchildren without having to abandon the world of work.

Back in April 2015 it was reported that more than half of mothers relied on grandparents for childcare on returning to work. As comedian Shappi Khorsandi once quipped, "I want to have children while my mother is still young enough to raise them". In the region of 1.9 million grandparents were reported to have given up work, reduced their hours or taken time off work to look after grandchildren. It's this loss to the workplace, with skill and experience sacrificed to allow grandparents to be involved in childcare that needs to be stemmed.

For business this is an important consideration. In September 2015 PwC published data revealing that increasing the rate of employment of workers aged 55-69 could boost the UK's GDP by £100 billion. The Golden Age Index reveals the UK in 19th place having dropped from 16th place in 2003 - ironically the year in which the right to request flexible working was introduced by the former labour government. According to Jon Andrews, Head of PwC's Global People and Organisation, practice policies concentrating on "keeping people skilled and motivated to stay in the workplace for longer" could result in significant gains for the UK economy. Practices such as flexible working and career breaks could help "harness the diversity that results from having a broader range of generations working together".

What is being proposed?

Six months ago the Labour Party outlined a plan to permit working grandparents to take time off to look after their grandchildren.

The proposal was however focused on using the existing system of unpaid parental leave (up to 18 weeks unpaid leave per parent in respect of each child which can be taken any time up to the child's 18th birthday provided no more than four weeks taken in any given). 

On Sunday 4 October George Osborne tweeted:

"Grandparents shouldn't have to choose between helping with new grandchild and staying in work. So we'll introduce grandparental leave."

Rather than go down the unpaid parental leave route, the proposal will extend the similarly named but very different system of shared parental leave which came into full effect in April this year.

According to newspapers reports, the latest Government plans are to enable parents to share up to 50 weeks of shared parental leave and up to 37 weeks of shared parental leave pay with a grandparent. Newspaper reports suggest parents will be only able to nominate one eligible grandparent to share the leave. Had the Government gone down the 'parental leave' route, this would have created a freestanding right for grandparents, albeit unpaid.

The latest proposals do not appear to give grandparents a freestanding right, but rather dependent upon the mother/primary adopter giving up a portion of their leave entitlement. Whether the  leave will be 'paid' will depend on the portion of leave shared as only the first 37 weeks of the potential 50 weeks of leave that can be shared attracts statutory pay. In essence, the overall amount of leave and statutory pay stays the same, but mothers/primary adopters will not only be able to share their leave entitlement with the father/partner but also (or instead of) with a nominated grandparent.

While this sounds relatively straightforward, the legislative provisions are likely to be voluminous and complex (as anyone who has read the raft of regulations introducing shared parental leave can testify). There are a number of issues that will need to be addressed. For instance:

  1. What relationship does the grandparent need to have with the mother/primary adopter and/or the child? Will it extend to a step-grandparent, for example? The complexities of the modern 'blended' family make the possible permutations numerous.
  2. Will there be limits placed on those with a large number of grandchildren?
  3. What will the notification requirements be as between potentially three different employers?
  4. Will there be restrictions on the nominated grandparent from receiving additional payments from the parents for providing the care, how could that be policed and what would be the repercussions of breach?
  5. What about enhanced contractual pay? For those employers who already offer enhanced shared parental pay for both mothers and fathers, will they need to offer enhanced shared parental pay for grandparents or face an age discrimination claim?

Significant change is never simple. We await the detail.

What to think about now?

It is only six months since fathers have been able to take up shared parental leave, being far too little time to gauge take up rates. Nevertheless, predictions remain that take up by fathers will be relatively low. Many fathers are reluctant to take up a long period of shared parental leave not only for immediate financial reasons, but also concerns that taking leave will impede career progression. Grandparents on the other hand are more likely to already be well established in their career and so may prove to be more willing to take a bit of time out to care for a new grandchild. The reported figure of 1.9 million grandparents having already given up work or reduced hours to care for grandchildren warns that employers may see a significant influx of requests from grandparents for shared parental leave.

Once the detailed proposal are known, employers would be wise to 'plan ahead' preparing policies and guidance considering key decisions such as enhanced contractual pay as well as preparing a training programme for line managers on how it will operate and respond appropriately to requests to avoid age discrimination claims.

Follow @allaboutage on twitter.

This article was written by Anna Fletcher and Connie Cliff in the Employment and Equalities team and first published on Thompson Reuters Accleus on 27 October 2015.

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