Fathers grateful for paid holiday on child's birth: Martin Whitfield reports on the decision to block European legislation on paternity leave

VIRTUALLY all new fathers take time off from work when a baby is born. Most juggle one or two days from their annual holiday entitlement. Others have up to two weeks' paternity leave paid for by their employers.

'It was a great opportunity to be there at the beginning of the family unit,' said Greg Ball, marketing manager of the Littlewoods group, who had 10 days paid leave on the birth of his daughter Eleanor in June. 'I am very greatful to the company that I was able to do that.'

Littlewoods sees the introduction of paternity leave as part of its commitment to equal opportunities. Its maternity provisions are also in advance of British legislation and an unpaid parental leave period of up to 40 weeks can be used by either parent where both are employed by the company.

Paternity leave has been relatively slow to spread across the economy with the CBI saying that fewer than one-third of all companies grant extra time off. It is more common in the public sector, where the average time off is five days, while in manufacturing only a quarter of employees have the right to between one and three days. 'We believe it is an item that is best achieved through voluntary means,' the CBI said.

Most employers cite cost as the main reason for refusing to grant paternity leave, but a survey this year in Equal Opportunity Review of more than 350 organisations found the impact on the wage bill was negligible. 'During the last 12 months, 5,899 employees took paternity leave from 125 organisations employing 543,576 workers. Assuming that the employees took their full entitlement, this is equivalent to 0.054 days holiday per employee per annum. Or to put it another way, on the basis of a 35-hour week, the equivalent of 23 minutes per person per annum,' it said.

A number of small companies have been willing to have agreements with their staff. Piers Burgin, an accountant with Independent Phone Rentals, which has 12 staff in Richmond, south-west London, had 10 days extra holiday when Casey, his daughter was born three years ago. Two other male employees, including the managing director, have also had time off at the time of their children's birth. 'It was very important that I was there,' he said. 'I seemed to spend a lot of my time waiting for midwives. More and more people are taking paternity leave or they are using up their holidays. It is an experience fathers don't want to miss.'

Christine Gowridge, director of Maternity Alliance, said paternity leave was not a revolutionary concept and had been recommended by a House of Lords select committee more than 10 years ago.

'Somehow the attitude that you are not committed if you are not working all hours has got to be changed and some men are beginning to recognise that,' she said.

Even before yesterday's ruling in Brussels, British men, with no statutory rights, were worse off than many in Europe. In Denmark, men are entitled to 10 days leave to be taken in the first 14 weeks after birth. In France and Belgium three days leave is guaranteed and in Spain two days.

But Ian Handford, policy group chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: 'There are 1.4 million employers in the UK and 90 per cent of these employ fewer than 10 people. If just one person claimed paternity leave, the result would be a 10 per cent reduction in the workforce for up to three months in any given year.'

(Photograph omitted)