Paternal peril

The government's planned changes to parental leave will mean nothing short of a nightmare for small businesses.

The government's plans to enable new mums to transfer the second half of their year-long maternity entitlement to the father will become a reality this April.

And while we might all laud the idea that new dads will be happily bonded with their babies while the mother can get back on the career ladder and start chipping away at the glass ceiling, the reality will mean nothing short of a nightmare for small businesses to administer.

To make matters worse, the government has announced a consultation on extended rights for new parents, which would allow mothers and fathers to split their leave in whatever way suits them best including taking time off in chunks rather than in one go and allowing parents to take time off at the same time.

The proposals, which Nick Clegg says will rescue the UK from an "Edwardian" system, sound gorgeous, fluffy and lovely – who would want to deny new parents the right to spend equal time cooing over their newborn? But they are profoundly impractical.

A system of parental leave in 'chunks' will create tremendous difficulties for all but the largest employers to implement. It takes time to train a temporary maternity cover employee to do the job they are covering for, but if a parent on maternity or paternity leave can take their leave in chunks, it will make cover impossible for employers to organise.

My prediction is that small, entrepreneurial businesses like Martek Marine will be left with no choice but to rely on temporary workers from employment agencies for short chunks of time at sky-high agency rates. And if the parent returns after a month, all the training invested in the temporary cover will be wasted as that person is unlikely to be available again when the parent takes another chunk of time off a month or so later.

The government is being short-sighted if it can’t see the damaging effect this practice could have on recruitment. It’s a fact nevertheless that many employers, unlike Martek, already flout the law by avoiding hiring women of childbearing age. If these proposals go ahead they could make employers wary of recruiting anyone in their 20s or 30s for fear of the administrative headache they will have to endure at the prospect of a new parent suddenly appearing on their carefully balanced team.

How on earth can Clegg and Cameron square this with their apparently empty promises to simplify employment law, nurture entrepreneurial spirit and generally help rather than hinder small business?

These proposals are potentially toxic for smaller employers. At a time when businesses are struggling to survive grim economic times, loading them with extra burdens, all in the name of sorting out a problem which simply doesn’t exist, is deeply misguided. It’s a cliché, I know, but 'political correctness gone mad' really does seem to sum up the government’s deranged thinking on this issue.