The Big Question: Do we need to change the rules on maternity and paternity leave?

Why are we asking this now?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called for a dramatic change in parental leave arrangements to ensure that fathers and lower-income parents are better served. The Commission insists that mothers and fathers should be able to share the leave allowance to give men more time with their children while both maternity and paternity pay should be raised to encourage low income families to take advantage of the benefit.

What is the current situation?

Mothers are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave of which 39 weeks is paid either as Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) or Maternity Allowance (MA) depending on their employment status.

For six weeks those on SMP receive 90 per cent of their average salary. This then drops to a flat rate (currently £117.18 a week but set to rise to £123.06 from 5 April) for the next 33 weeks. MA is all paid at the flat rate. Fathers are entitled to two weeks leave during the first two months, paid at the flat rate.

What is being proposed?

The Commission has come up with a 10-year-strategy. It proposes that men should be entitled to the first two weeks of paternity pay at 90 per cent of their salary as well as four months of "parental leave" after the first six month of maternity leave and before the child's fifth birthday. Eight weeks of this should be at the 90 per cent rate.

For mothers, it recommends that the 90 per cent pay rate should be extended from six to 26 weeks and they too should be entitled to the same four months of "parental leave". In addition, the EHRC suggests a further four months leave, eight weeks of which at 90 per cent pay, that either parent can take.

Is this just all about the rights of fathers?

No, the Commission also wants greater focus on encouraging low-income families and single parents, who are far less likely to take their full entitlement. The rates of pay must be increased so they too can afford to benefit from time spent with their children. Furthermore, it argues that the focus on maternity leave damages women's career prospects.

Are mothers ready to hand over the pram?

While many still believe that the maternal relationship is crucial to the child, others insist that fathers are equally adept at stepping into the role. The Commission's survey of 4,500 parents found that half of both men and women would support the option of transferring maternity leave allowance to fathers. Almost two thirds of them believed that fathers should spend more time with their young sons and daughters. Of the fathers who failed to take up paternity leave, the vast majority said they would have liked to but half simply could not afford it.

How do we compare to other countries?

Whilst the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform argues that the UK "already has generous and progressive measures to support parents" benefits for many of our continental neighbours far outstrip ours. Sweden has one of the most generous packages with all working parents entitled to 16 months paid leave, with two months of that leave having to be taken by the "minority parent", usually the father.

Some political parties are now arguing that the 16 months should be shared equally. In Lithuania mothers are entitled to 100 per cent pay for the first year, 85 per cent for the second and a third year unpaid. Fathers are entitled to a month of paternity leave and can then take over the mother's leave, even choosing to swap in "shifts". However, the United States is one of a handful of countries worldwide, including Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea that offers no paid leave.

Is Britain stuck in the dark ages when it comes to parental rights?

Rights for women have improved substantially over the past few years and 76 of mothers still say they are the primary carers for their offspring. Paid leave has almost doubled – from 18 to 39 weeks – since 1997 while the weekly rate has gone up from £55.70 to £123.06. However, while many employers now take an enlightened attitude in dealing with fathers, the legislation has not kept pace and we have the most unequal parental leave arrangements in Europe. More than half of fathers, surveyed by the EHRC, felt they spent too little time with children under one. Meanwhile almost 70 per cent said that taking paternity leave had improved the quality of family life while 56 per cent it led to them taking a great role in caring for their children.

How much is this going to cost and can we afford it?

The Commission estimates that it would cost £5.3 billion (introduced incrementally over three years) above the £2.07 billion the UK already spends annually on parental leave. It argues the total cost of 0.53 per cent of GDP is lower than the 0.84 per cent spent on child benefit.

However, the CBI insisted yesterday that such costs were unaffordable, bearing in mind the "alarming state of the public finances". Katja Hall, CBI Director of HR Policy, added: "While this report raises some interesting talking points, the proposal to introduce paid parental leave to be shared between parents would be complex and costly for companies to administer."

Could resentment be created among workers without children?

Those who face the flip side of greater parental rights are the workers brought in to cover temporarily for mothers on leave, some of whom may be hoping their position becomes permanent if their predecessor chooses to stay home. Women on maternity leave must give two months notice if they are planning to return before their year is up but only standard contractual notice if they do not want their old jobs back, often leaving their replacements in limbo until the very last minute.

The Federation of Small Businesses called for "stay in touch" days, giving an employer a greater opportunity to assess whether a worker was returning or needed to be replaced.

The Federation pointed out that, while smaller companies were reimbursed the entire cost of parental leave, it could create an administrative nightmare which would be exacerbated if both the mother and father's companies were involved in arrangements.

Is this report really going to change anything?

The Government said yesterday that it welcomed the EHRC's contribution to an important debate but that "these are difficult times for businesses and families and the EHRC's proposals look to have considerable costs attached to them. We will need to take time to more fully assess the implications of these recommendations".

Should maternity and paternity leave be rebalanced in law?

Yes...

* We have the most unequal arrangements in Europe, with many of our Continental neighbours taking a far more progressive approach

* Many fathers now want to take a more active part in their children's lives and should be afforded the chance to do so

* Low-income families and single parents are losing out because they simply cannot afford to take up the full maternity or paternity leave that is their right

No...

* We simply cannot afford the extra financial burden

* A change in paternal rights would create a further administrative nightmare for small businesses. With mothers and fathers working for two different companies, there would be a danger of flawed or false claims.

* A 'reality check' is needed bearing in mind that 97 per cent of businesses employ under 20 people but already have to deal with parental leave on average every five years

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