The Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC, accused the Government yesterday of breaking European law by denying 2.7 million working parents in Britain new rights on parental leave.
Ms Booth, representing the Trades Union Congress in her last court-room appearance before the birth of her fourth child, said government lawyers had wrongly interpreted a new European directive.
She said that regulations giving the right to 13 weeks' unpaid leave during the first five years of a child's life had excluded parents of children born before 15 December 1999, when the law was introduced. That restriction, she argued, was unlawful and based on a wrong interpretation of the European Parental Leave Directive.
She told Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, and Mr Justice Morison that the directive, introduced in most of the rest of Europe in 1996, had had "a very long gestation period, which is something I am beginning to think is a curse".
Sitting next to Ms Booth were government lawyers representing the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers. Mr Byers, she said, had argued that parental leave rights applied only to the future and related to a fixed event, the birth of a child.
Ms Booth said: "What this directive is all about is parental responsibility. It's not exclusively about the birth of a child - the Secretary of State's argument concentrates too narrowly on this magic birth date. Parental responsibility is wider than simply birth. Parental leave is over and above maternity leave and recognises the continuing responsibility parents have for their children."
She said parents were entitled to 13 weeks' unpaid leave during the first five years of a child's life or the first five years after the adoption of a child.
As the scheme stood, it would cost employers £42.18m over five years. To include the parents of children born before 15 December would cost about another £50m. But this was "small beer" compared with the £2.5bn cost of the minimum wage regulations, said Ms Booth. The Government's claim that the burden on employers was already excessive was an exaggeration, she said.
Jonathan Crow, counsel for Mr Byers, said the framework agreement under the directive referred to the right to parental leave "on the grounds of the birth or adoption of a child".
Judgement was reserved.A decision is expected next week.