Hewitt hints at one year's maternity pay

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New mothers are to be given one year's paid leave in a cash incentive designed to promote the "work-life balance" and woo back women and young families to the Labour Party.

New mothers are to be given one year's paid leave in a cash incentive designed to promote the "work-life balance" and woo back women and young families to the Labour Party.

The proposals for enhanced maternity leave will be a main Labour election promise. Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, said yesterday that boosting maternity pay would be a "high priority for the Government" in a third term.

Ms Hewitt is also examining proposals to increase paternity pay and offer new fathers two weeks' paid leave - at 90 per cent of their full salary. At the moment, they receive just more than £100 a week paternity pay.

Speaking at an Equal Opportunities Commission conference on how to make more of women's skills in the workplace, Ms Hewitt said: "We are looking at extending maternity pay and how quickly we can do that. It will feature highly in the manifesto with which we fight the next election. It is an increasingly high priority for the Government, because it is an increasingly high priority for families."

The cabinet minister said that the Government was committed to giving better help to both parents.

"It is still our goal to continue to increase the support and choice we give families and to give a second six-months' paid maternity leave. The improvements we have already made in maternity pay and rights for fathers have made a real difference to people's lives."

In April last year, the Government increased basic maternity pay to a period of 26 weeks from 18. Women receive 90 per cent of their normal pay for the first six weeks, and £102.80 a week for the remaining weeks of their leave.

Employers are said to be worried by the suggestion that new fathers should be paid 90 per cent of their salary if they take two weeks' paternity leave and yesterday the Government said the plan was not a firm proposal.

Ms Hewitt also criticised the "jobs for the boys culture" at work. She attacked sexism in the office which was stopping women doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.

She said sexism had created a 19 per cent pay gap between male and female workers.

With the pay discrepancy rooted in an "occupational segregation", Ms Hewitt urged workers to tackle stereotypes in the workplace. "It's not government's job to dictate employment options but we must give women more choice if we are to address the chronic pay gap. Career sexism limits opportunities for women of all ages and prevents them from achieving their full potential."

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