TURNING up to ante-natal classes and assisting during the birth is old news for Nineties men. But British dads who want time off work afterwards as well as their partner find that fathers here have no statutory right to paternity leave.

The Government is keen to ensure that fathers recognise their financial responsibilities towards their children, but less inclined to ensure that they devote some time to them when they are born. It remains up to individual companies to decide whether or not to give their male employees time off for the birth of a child.

According to the Confederation of British Industry, the number of companies voluntarily offering paternity leave has increased dramatically since 1987, from 32 per cent to 76 per cent of those surveyed - though many offer only a few days out of the office.

Greg Ball was one of the lucky ones. His company, Littlewoods, gave him 10 days paid paternity leave when his daughter Eleanor was born. The time proved invaluable. 'You have got to understand what your wife has to do when you go back to work,' said Greg. 'It's no good pretending it's an easy option.'

His wife Sara was delighted to have Greg at home. 'When you come out of hospital you're knackered and need to build up your strength. Having your husband at home cushions the blow and means that there is somebody else there to hold the baby when you want to do something yourself, like take a shower. If she got too much for me Greg could take over and give me a break.'

Not only did the time enable Greg to give practical support, it also meant he could form a strong bond with his daughter. 'You get a real appreciation of what it is all about. You can tell from her different noises and mannerisms exactly what she requires. Without spending this time at home you'd never know. You become very interested in what is happening and when. I know I'll want to know as soon as she says her first word and takes her first steps.'

Two weeks was a decent amount of time, he felt. 'The first week everybody wants to see the baby, there is a lot of activity from friends and relatives. It is only in the second week that you begin to establish a routine. One week wouldn't be enough.'

However, many companies offer no more than a couple of days and are still far more likely to grant time off for military training than for learning the art of fatherhood. Those whose companies offer no paternity leave must take time off as holiday or sick leave.

Sweden recently decided to compel its new fathers to take a month off work for the birth of a child. It already offered generous parental leave of a year at 80 per cent of salary, to be shared between both partners at any time up until the child's eighth birthday - but many men were still failing to do their bit at the beginning.

Carl Harald, director of a Swedish pharmaceutical company, has three children. He took eight to 10 days off work when they were born then divided the rest of the year more or less equally with his wife. He disapproves of making paternity leave compulsory 'although it might put pressure on fathers who never take any leave'.

Greg Ball agreed: 'I don't think you can make caring for a baby a compulsory activity. You have got to want to do it.' It is hard to see how the Swedish government will ensure that slack dads are changing nappies, not watching football.

Only four members of the EU provide statutory paternity leave (Belgium, Spain, France and Denmark). But all except Britain supported a proposal last year to establish a legal right to three months parental leave for either partner, on top of existing pregnancy leave for the mother.

David Hunt, then Secretary of State for Employment, demanded exemption for Britain, saying it would be an extra burden on employers, although a survey published by the Equal Opportunities Review found that the cost to companies in terms of time lost would be 'negligible' - amounting to as little as 23 minutes per worker per year.

Calls for legislation are on the increase. The Trades Union Congress recently published A Guide on Family Leave, suggesting 10 days' statutory paid paternity leave as a realistic target, with the option of further unpaid leave. Parents at Work (formerly the Working Mothers Association) suggests a minimum of five days paid leave plus four months parental leave to be taken by either partner any time between the birth and the child's third birthday.

Lucy Daniels, director of Parents at Work, said: 'The Government should establish that parenthood is a joint responsibility. At present some men have no difficulty negotiating leave and others have great trouble. It often depends on the mood of their line manager that day.'

Paul Weiser, business unit manager for ICL, found that was the case when he inquired about paternity leave. 'There was no statutory allowance. I happen to work for a decent manager in a benevolent unit and got a week's leave purely at his discretion. It's not official and depends on each individual case. He knew I wouldn't abuse it. I might have to put it down as sick leave, I don't know yet. We shouldn't have to do it like that, it should be provided as standard. It was essential for me to be at home in the first week.'

For some, paternity leave can be an excuse for a holiday if taken at the right time. David, who works for a publishing company, took his second paternity leave six months after his daughter was born. 'I couldn't take it straight away for work reasons. Taking it later meant I missed most of the hard work and was able to put my feet up and watch the telly. I recommend most men do it that way round.' He experienced resentment from male colleagues. 'Men still feel it's the woman's job and that if you stay at home too you're a wimp, skiving from work.'

Carl Harald thinks it will take another 10 or 15 years for the idea of paternity leave to really catch on in Britain. 'You have got to get the men there to realise it is important. In Sweden your superiors at work encourage it now because they spent time at home themselves and thought it was wonderful.'

For Jim Heineman, circulation manager for Time Out magazine, his 20 days was the longest leave he had ever taken. 'It was wonderful to have something that marked the transition into a family,' he said. 'Sadly, it will probably be the longest I spend with my daughter before I retire.'

(Photograph omitted)