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Parental leave

As long as you meet certain conditions, if you're a parent of children under five, or disabled children under 18, you have a statutory right to take unpaid time off work to care for them.

The basics of parental leave

If you've worked for the same employer for a year you can take:

  • 13 weeks off work (in total, not per year) for each child, up to their fifth birthday (or up to five years after the placement date of an adopted child)
  • 18 weeks for each disabled child, up to the child's 18th birthday

Parental leave or paternity leave?

Parental leave is usually unpaid. It's different from maternity or paternity leave, which is related to the birth of a new baby, and from adoption leave, which applies when an employee adopts a child.

Are you entitled to parental leave?

You have the right to parental leave if you:

  • have been employed by the same company for a year or more
  • are an 'employee', with a contract of employment (most agency and casual staff don't have the right to parental leave)

and you:

  • are a parent named on the child's birth certificate or
  • are named on the child's adoption certificate or
  • have legal parental responsibility for a child under five (18 if disabled)

Either parent has the right to parental leave. If you're separated and your ex-partner looks after the children, you have the right to parental leave if you keep formal parental responsibility for the children.

Foster parents do not have rights to parental leave. 

If you don't qualify for parental leave

If you don't qualify for parental leave but need time off to care for your child, you could:

  • take paid holiday
  • ask your employer for unpaid time off
  • ask your employer about flexible working

If there's a genuine emergency and you need to take time off at short notice, your employer may let you take emergency leave or you may have the right to take time off to arrange for care.

How much parental leave can you take?

Your basic entitlement is 13 weeks' leave (in total, not each year) for each child until their fifth birthday. If the child's adopted, it's until the fifth anniversary of their placement with you or until their 18th birthday, whichever comes first.

If your child's disabled (that is, getting disability living allowance) you have the right to 18 weeks' leave until their 18th birthday.

Parental leave schemes

Wherever possible, employers and employees should make their own agreements about how parental leave will work in a workplace, but if this is not possible the following 'fallback scheme' applies automatically.

One week blocks

Leave must be in blocks of full weeks, so if you want time off in odd days - for example, to take your child to the dentist - you should ask your employer if you can work flexibly or use your holiday allowance.

If your child has a disability, you can take time off in days instead of weeks, so you could use parental leave for regular hospital visits.

Four weeks per year

You can't take more than four weeks' leave for any one child in a year.

Giving notice

You must give at least 21 days' notice when you want to take parental leave. To help your employer, it's best to give this notice in writing.

Can your employer postpone your leave?

Unless you want to take parental leave immediately after the birth or adoption, your employer can postpone your leave for up to six months if they feel it would disrupt the business. If the postponement goes past the end of the entitlement period, you can still take the leave. To do this they must give you notice within seven days of you telling them that you wish to take parental leave.

Carrying over leave

If you get a new job, you can carry over untaken parental leave. You won't be able to take leave until you've been with your new employer for a year.

Payment for leave

Statutory parental leave is unpaid, but if you're on a low income, you might get Income Support.

Extra help from your employer

Some employers have special arrangements for parental leave that are better than the fallback scheme (for example, you might be able to take parental leave even if you've worked there for less than a year). There should be details in your contract of employment or staff handbook. If not, ask your employer.

Will your terms and conditions change because you take parental leave?

You get all your normal employment benefits, apart from wages, during your parental leave. As long as the leave isn't for longer than 4 weeks in a year you'll be able to go back to the same job. Your employer mustn't treat you unfairly or sack you for taking or asking to take parental leave.

What to do if you're not allowed to take parental leave

If you have the right to take parental leave and are refused, talk to your employer or the company's HR department about the reasons. If you have an employee representative (for example, a trade union official), they may be able to help. If this doesn't work, you may need to make a complaint using your employer's internal grievance procedure. If you're still unhappy, you have the right to make a complaint to an Employment Tribunal.

Where to get help

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues. You can call the Acas helpline on 08457 47 47 47 from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm Monday to Friday.

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues for residents of Northern Ireland. You can contact the LRA on 028 9032 1442 from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. You can find your local CAB office in the phone book or online.

If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.

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