Government sources confirmed that ministers were considering plans to give fathers a statutory minimum paternity payment, probably of around pounds 57 a week, which would be on a par with statutory maternity pay. As with maternity pay, employers would be reimbursed by the state for about 90 per cent of that amount. They could then opt to top up the payment.
Labour already intends to guarantee that all working parents can claim three months' unpaid parental leave from December 1999 when Britain adopts the European Social Chapter. A senior ministerial source said last night that the paid paternity leave was part of attempts to introduce more "family- friendly policies". But he played down suggestions that the idea had already been approved: "This is a document which has been circulated for discussion, no more, no less."
The source also suggested that the Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman, had leaked the plans, possibly to stave off rumours that she could be moved in a Cabinet reshuffle. The source said it looked like part of a "Save Harriet campaign".
The Department for Social Security could not confirm that the plans were under discussion. A spokesman said the Government did aim to introduce unpaid parental leave for all working parents. He also said that the European directive would guarantee protection from dismissal for taking leave.
In the European Union, only the Scandinavian countries provide statutory paternity leave of two weeks or more. Belgium and France offer three days' paid leave.