Parents get rights to more time off

Employment: Entitlement to 13 weeks' unpaid leave attacked as perk only for better off and disruptive to small firms
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The Independent Online
MORE THAN a million working parents are to benefit from new "family- friendly" measures to give them more time off to care for their children.

The package announced yesterday by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, includes an increase in statutory maternity leave and the right to 13 weeks' unpaid leave for all parents.

The proposals, which will mean that fathers have the legal right to paternity leave for the first time, were broadly welcomed by childcare and women's rights groups as a "massive leap forward". However, the Tories and some business groups attacked the plans as too costly and unworkable for small companies, while some union leaders and Labour MPs complained that the extra leave was not paid.

Under the package, maternity leave will rise by a month from 14 weeks to 18 weeks, with the qualifying period of employment cut from two years to one year. From December this year, mothers, fathers and adoptive parents will have the right to take up to 13 weeks off work, unpaid, to care for children in their first five years. The new right to unpaid leave means that mothers who qualify will be able to extend their maternity leave until 29 weeks after the birth.

Parents will also be entitled to time off to cope with "family emergencies" such as an illness suffered by their child or their partner, or a problem with childminders or schools.

The Government will consult industry and campaign groups over the next three months, but the measures should be in place by December, as required under a European Union directive on parental leave.

Mr Byers said the package, which will require staff to give four weeks' notice of any unpaid leave and will not need record-keeping by companies, was a classic example of "light-touch" regulation. "As the world of work changes, more and more parents are in employment. They should not face the dilemma of choosing between being a good parent, successful in their own careers or simply holding down a job," he said.

The Confederation of British Industry welcomed the "balanced" measures. But both the Institute of Directors (IoD) and small-business leaders warned that they could wreck the planning of some firms.

Ruth Lea, head of policy at the IoD, said: "If someone decides to take three months off in a small firm, it will cause huge problems. It could all be hugely disruptive for small firms and could force employers not to consider hiring women of child-bearing age. There is already evidence that some of our members think twice because of the potential disruption to their business."

Companies were also concerned that workers could abuse the new right to time off for family emergencies, she said. Stephen Alambritis, a national official of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "Parental leave will pose particular problems, especially for small firms, where all staff are key workers. The directive has in place special arrangements for small and medium-sized enterprises to postpone leave for its key workers and we will press the Government to implement this."

Alan Duncan, the Tory trade and industry spokesman, said the consultation document was a "pathetic compromise" that would please no one. "Big companies, which can afford to do this, will do it anyway. Small businesses, which are counting the pennies, will have to pay agency rates or make do with one fewer person while the unpaid father is absent."

David Lea, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the measures would lead to less stress for staff and a more productive workplace, but expressed concern "that if parental leave is to be unpaid, only better-off parents will be able to benefit".

Harriet Harman, former social security secretary, said the measures were a "huge leap forward" but added that to ensure equal access to the new rights, leave should be paid for families on low and middle incomes.

Maternity Alliance and the campaign group Parents at Work welcomed the moves but said poor parents would lose out if leave was not paid.