Britain's employers will accept proposed extensions to family-friendly and flexible-working employment rights, the CBI has claimed, but only if the government proves its commitment to 'better regulation'.
The introduction of new rights must be accompanied by a commitment from government to no further changes in this area during the lifetime of this Parliament, the CBI added, giving proper time for the new rights to bed in and for their impact to be assessed.
But although the CBI says that the controversial proposals will be accepted if the government limits their scope, groups representing small businesses have steadfastly opposed the plans.
These include increasing maternity leave from six to nine months, fathers to take over some of that leave for themselves and extending the right to request flexible working to all 4.5 million parents of school-age children and 1.8 million people who look after sick or disabled relatives.
A recent survey by the British Chambers of Commerce revealed that eight out of 10 firms opposed any further extensions to maternity leave, with firms employing fewer than 50 people particularly unhappy with the proposals.
Another widespread complaint from smaller firms is that employers are left footing the bill for recruiting temporary maternity cover while women have no obligation to give their employers a definite date when they expect to return to work, something acknowledged by John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director-General.
"Many of our members want the Government to take back responsibility for administering maternity pay, but with the option for individual employers to manage payments themselves should they wish," he said.
"Employers also need more certainty over when a mother intends to return to work, with the notice required for mothers to return early from maternity leave increased to three months, and employers expressly permitted to contact women during their leave."
The CBI said that employers would accept the extension of paid maternity leave to nine months by April 2007 and to 12 months by the end of this Parliament - but only as long as the right to return to the same job is not extended beyond the current six months.
Notice required for mothers to return early from maternity leave must also be increased to three months, while mothers should only be allowed to transfer part of their leave and pay to fathers after six months and only if employers receive three months' notice of a transfer.
On flexible working, the CBI said that it agreed with extending the number of employees who can request flexible working - but only one group at a time, and preferably to those with caring responsibilities first.
The latest CBI/Pertemps Employment Trends Survey has revealed that three quarters of employee requests for flexible working are currently accepted, with compromise reached on a further 15%.
Only one in ten requests were not accepted.
The results also show that half of employers believe that carers should be the first priority for extended flexible working rights, compared to a quarter who want to see the same for all parents of children under 16 or all employees.
"This is the first test of the Government's recent promises on regulation," John Cridland said.
"Employers have been challenged to accept new family-friendly rights. In return, we have a challenge for Government - demonstrate your commitment to smarter regulation by reducing the burden on employers alongside introducing these extra rights."
"Our members expect the extended rights to be introduced in a balanced way, and to be the last for some time.
"The bottom line is that if employment rights go too far, they will actually cost jobs rather than improve them. The changes have to be workable on the business front line."