The Work and Families Act 2006 was introduced following government consultation on a range of proposals to help parents balance work and family life. The provisions of the Act intend to address several policy goals:

? To help parents take leave to care for their children in the first year

? To improve staff morale, retention and recruitment

? To support business planning.

maternity rights

So what are the changes? For those with babies born on or after April 1, 2007, there is an increase in statutory maternity and adoption pay. All employees are entitled to additional maternity leave, previously only available to those with longer service, and employers are to be given more notice of employees returning to work following maternity leave.

Key changes include:

? The extension of the period of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) from 26 weeks to 39 weeks

? The removal of the small business exemption. Employers with five employees or fewer are no longer exempt from a finding of automatic unfair dismissal, where they do not allow a woman returning from additional maternity leave (AML) to return to the same or a similar job

? The removal of the qualifying period for AML (26 weeks). All employees whose due date was on or is after April 2007 will qualify for 52 weeks’ maternity leave, regardless of length of service

? An increase in the notice period for an employee to return early from AML

?The introduction of ’Keeping in Touch’ (KIT) days. Where employee and employer agree, the woman can work up to 10 days without losing her right to SMP

? Employers will also be entitled to make "reasonable contact" with employees while they are on maternity leave.

The changes listed above represent the first wave of proposed reforms to maternity pay and leave. Apart from increasing the rate of maternity pay, it is the government’s intention to extend the maternity pay period to the whole of the 52 weeks. It is also anticipated that it will introduce a right for fathers to take up to six months’ paternity leave if the mother returns to work after Ordinary Maternity Leave (26 weeks).

family-friendly approach

It is wise to have family-friendly policies in place, which not only deal with maternity, paternity and adoption leave, but also time off for emergencies and parental leave. For flexible working requests, employers should process any requests from carers in the same way as they have for those with child-care responsibilities.

statutory procedure

The importance of adhering to the statutory procedure cannot be overstated, as the consequences of not doing so can be costly. An employee can challenge an employer’s refusal to grant flexible working at the Employment Tribunal. If a Tribunal finds that the employer has breached the statutory procedure, they can award up to eight weeks’ pay, subject to a maximum weekly amount of £310. In addition, if the Tribunal also finds evidence of discrimination, then injury to feelings awards apply, which can range between £500 and £25,000 but are, in reality, unlimited.

? Rob Bryan is an employment lawyer with Darbys Solicitors LLP in Oxford (