Under a European directive in the Social Chapter, which was adopted as a manifesto pledge by the Government, employers will have to grant time off for parents. They will be consulted about how much time off should be given and whether or not it will be paid.
Harriet Harman, the Secretary of State for Social Security, is very keen to see such measures as part of the Government's package of "family friendly" employment policies.
Under the Parental Leave Directive, both fathers and mothers will have the right to time off work. At present, parents often have to feign sickness themselves or take paid holiday to look after their children.
Ms Harman hopes such measures will allow more women to go back to work after having children. Even if the leave is unpaid, it will make working practices more flexible.
Under a separate European directive, working fathers will be allowed a week's paid paternity leave and a guarantee of three months' unpaid leave if they have a child or adopt one.
The Government plans to publish its "Childcare Strategy" soon, though the plans for sick child leave will be separate from this.
The childcare strategy will include pounds 300m for nurseries which will provide childcare for children of working parents.
Ms Harman has made getting lone parents back to work a central plank of her strategy, causing controversy among Labour backbenchers.
In a recent speech, she said: "This package of measures is crucial to making sure that mothers and fathers can take time out to care for their children without jeopardising their employment prospects."
But the new rights are likely to be greeted with dismay by small businesses, who claim that increasing numbers of measures giving parents more flexibility to be with their children create an intolerable burden on companies with only a few staff.Reuse content