Maternity leave to be extended

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WOMEN WILL be entitled to an extra month's maternity leave, paid for by the state, every time they have a baby, under legislation on workers' rights to be unveiled by the Government this week.

Couples will also be given the right to take time off work if they adopt a child, under a radical package of measures designed to improve the lives of working parents.

The provisions will form part of the Fairness at Work Bill, which also seeks to change the law governing trade unions. Although attention has until now focused on this aspect of the legislation, Stephen Byers decided when he took over as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry last month to concentrate on beefing up the family-friendly employment measures to prove the Government's commitment to women.

Women will be entitled to take 18, rather than 14, weeks off work immediately after the birth of a child. Both mothers and fathers will also get a statutory right to three months' unpaid "parental leave". The Government plans to introduce much greater flexibility for this, so that parents will be able to take the time either immediately after their child's birth or later, possibly even up to the age of 16. Ministers are also considering forcing companies to allow parents to work part-time during this period so that, for example, instead of having three months of full days off, they could have six months of half-days.

Couples who adopt a child will, for the first time, become entitled to three months' unpaid "parental leave" when the child arrives in their family. Ministers believe that, to give stability to families, parents should be given time to bond with children both by birth and adoption. The Bill will also introduce new provisions to allow parents time off work to deal with family crises, such as the illness of a child or elderly relative.

Ministers have put family-friendly policies at the top of their agenda. The Government is finalising details of its National Childcare Strategy and is drawing up plans to regulate nannies and childcarers. Government insiders believe the Fairness at Work legislation is a key part of the package. "People are increasingly having to balance family responsibilities and the world of work," one source said. "This is now being addressed."