Radical plans could double maternity leave


Radical proposals to double statutory paid maternity leave in the UK to a year and offer greatly increased leave for fathers have been floated in a speech by the children's minister, Margaret Hodge.

Speaking to the Blairite Social Market Foundation in London, Mrs Hodge suggested that the total period that both parents should be allowed to take off as paid leave should be extended to a year.

The mother would take the first six months as paid maternity leave, but the remaining six months could be taken by either the mother or the father, or a combination of both, and would continue to be paid at the same rate.

Under the current rules introduced last April, paid maternity leave was extended to 26 weeks paid at a maximum of £100 a week while fathers were given the right to two weeks' paid paternity leave at £100 a week.

"There is no doubt that all the evidence and research tells us that the role of the parent is critical to the first year of a child's life," Mrs Hodge said.

"In my view, we should be working towards parents to stay at home for the crucial first year of their child's life. And that opportunity should be open to both fathers and mothers.

"All the research confirms the important role fathers, as well as mothers, play in their children's lives, yet too few fathers take time out of work in the first year of their child's life to care for their baby."

"Measures such as reserving a portion of leave that could only be taken by fathers - "daddy leave" - may be one way to encourage fathers to spend more time at home," she added.

Mrs Hodge said that she had recently visited Sweden and was "full of envy" at the generous maternity and paternity entitlements there.

"Their investment in services is matched by their more generous settlement for parents with better and longer paid leave for both mothers and fathers. And providing that support to parents, particularly after the baby is born, has to be part of what we are about."

But it is less clear that most Britons would be prepared to pay Sweden's punitive rates of tax to fund such provision. Total taxation in Sweden, including local taxes, is equal to 59.2 percent of the economy, the highest level in the 27-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Yet by raising the issue in public in this way, it is clear that it is under real consideration by the government, who are expected to make improvements in childcare services and nursery education a key pillar of their next election manifesto.

But any such move would enrage many employers and place particular burdens on small businesses. As Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said: "How many companies will want to lose people for a year - or allow fathers to go for paid leave of absence? The idea is good but not realistic."

The Confederation of British Industry was also sceptical. According to Susan Anderson, the CBI's human resources director: "These flexible working rights are only one year old and companies would be extremely concerned to learn that the government is considering extension at this early stage."