Byers hints at more maternity pay and admits continentals do better

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Britain is lagging behind the rest of Europe in providing help for working women who have children, the Government admitted yesterday.

Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, published figures showing how British women missed out, and urged firms to adopt more family-friendly policies. He hinted that the Government would fund higher maternity benefits.

Launching a review of maternity pay and parental leave, Mr Byers said the entitlement to maternity leave at full pay worked out at an average of 8.6 weeks in Britain, well below the average figure in Europe.

"The number of women who don't work because of family responsibilities is much higher in the UK than it is in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and France," he said. "In the UK the proportion of the female workforce who stop working if they have children under the age of two is higher than in Italy, Germany, Holland, Austria and France."

He said the review would try to remove the barriers which prevented women from returning to work after having children.

Mr Byers said the review would consider demands for paid leave for parents, following warnings by Labour MPs that many low-paid people could not afford to take advantage of the available time off.

Labour MPs are backing a £525m-a-year scheme under which parents could take 13 weeks' paid time off after a birth. It could be included in the Labour manifesto for the next general election.

Mr Byers hinted that state backing for such a plan could be means-tested so it would help the low-paid rather than the well-off.

He added: "Any changes to benefits would have to be paid for, within public expenditure restrictions. We do not have a blank cheque."

He sought to allay industry's fears that the reforms would impose extra costs on them, saying this would form part of the review. But he said it was in employers' interests to maximise the benefits of a flexible workforce.

Further pressure on the Government to act will come at today's weekly meeting of Labour MPs, which will be presented with opinion polling suggesting that women are becoming disenchanted with Labour because the party has not yet fulfilled its promises to improve public services.

Yesterday Tony Blair shrugged off Labour's poor performance in last week's local and London elections, saying his Government would stick to its guns "come fair weather or foul".

He told a meeting of the Periodical Publishers Association in London: "Our biggest threat is not any argument or intellectual debate from the Conservatives - there is none. It is cynicism that confronts us."

He insisted his Government was based on "real convictions," and rejected criticism that it had no principles.

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