Kate Lester, who owns and runs courier company Diamond Logistics and is outspoken in her support for women in business, nevertheless believes the new rules around shared parental leave go too far.
The recently-introduced legislation allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay in the year following the birth or adoption of their child – on top of an initial two weeks of maternity leave for the mother.
The rules, which also allow parents to take time off together to look after a newborn, were announced by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who said the rights would allow men to become more hands-on fathers and stop women feeling they have to choose between a career or a baby.
Mother-of-two Kate Lester, though, was not impressed, suggesting that an employee-supported career break of 16 weeks would be more appropriate.
“After that you should make the call personally to take a career break, either with or without the support of your employer,” she said.
“It’s an individual call. You can be a mum or dad and have a career but you cannot subject your employer to operational punishment as a result of your life choices.
“I support paternity leave 100% as a means of enforcing equality in the work place and reducing the discriminatory perspective that many employers have of child bearing age women. I just feel that 50 weeks is far too long.
“There will now be 570,000 people eligible to take up to 25 weeks off each year. Or in other words 14,250,000 working weeks lost. That’s huge. It’s open to abuse, it’s a nightmare to administer and it subjects SMEs, particularly, to unreasonable pressure at a time when most are still fighting to keep their heads above water.”
Before 5 April, fathers were entitled to one or two weeks paid paternity leave, or up to 26 weeks’ paid additional paternity leave – but only if the mother or co-adopter returned to work.
Kate Lester believes the new rules will add to the pressure on employers, who already suffer when, she said, people “abuse their paid leave by taking their full 50 weeks and then not returning – with the employer penalised in terms of business functionality in the interim.”
She added: “I’ve seen it personally in dozens of instances – particularly in larger organisations such as local councils, the health services and big business.
“As employers you cannot recruit to replace, you have to leave the job open and then there is no recourse if, at the end of it, the parent decides not to rejoin the work force.
“It may be ok for the likes of massive organisations, but if two parents in my office decided to take paternity leave I would lose 20% of the workforce, which in a lean organisation is impossible. It is unworkable for small businesses.”
The pattern of leave must be agreed between the employee and employer and there must be eight weeks’ notice, but the Institute of Directors has also warned the new law could create a “nightmare” for employers.
Mr Clegg, though, said: “To build a fairer society, the Liberal Democrats want to tear down the barriers that stop people reaching their full potential.
“For too long, mums have been told their place is at home with their child, while dads return to work. I want parents to choose for themselves how to balance work and family.”
Meanwhile Kate concluded: “I took two weeks with Chloe and a week with Oscar. That’s the difference between being an employee and running your own business.”