Fathers may be guaranteed the right to take six months of paid paternity leave from work by a future Labour government. Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Children, told a seminar last night that the move would allow new fathers to make a stronger bond with their babies.
At present mothers are allowed six months of paid maternity leave towards the end of their pregnancy. Fathers are allowed to take two weeks of unpaid paternity leave. However Mrs Hodge, who was addressing the Social Market Foundation, said the Government should consider making the total period parents are allowed off a year. The mother would take the first six months as paid maternity leave, but the remaining six months could be taken by either the mother or the father, or a combination of both. "There is no doubt that all the evidence and research tells us that the role of the parent is critical to the first year of a child's life," Mrs Hodge said. "In my view, we should be working towards [allowing] parents to stay at home for the crucial first year of their child's life. And that opportunity should be open to both fathers and mothers. All the research confirms the important role fathers, as well as mothers, play in their children's lives, yet too few fathers take time out of work in the first year of their child's life to care for their baby."
Mrs Hodge said ministers should think about extending paid maternity leave to up to a year. "However, we should not naturally assume that this role falls on the mother alone," she added. "Both government and employers should be working together to develop more opportunities to help more fathers take time to care for their very young children. For example, measures such as reserving a portion of leave that could only be taken by fathers may be one way.
"With my lifelong commitment to gender equality I know that we will only make more progress if we enable both men and woman to share the responsibility for caring for their children. Some already do. Many more want to but our culture and our public investment does not always support that. It is time that it should."
Sources said last night that Mrs Hodge was floating ideas for inclusion in Labour's manifesto for the next election. It was recognised that it would be expensive to double paid maternity leave but that it needed to be done to combat the achievement gap between the children of rich and poor families which is evident even at the age of 22 months.
Parents' leaders, however, warned that the idea of doubling maternity pay was "not totally realistic". Margaret Morrissey, national spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said: "How many companies will want to lose people for a year - or allow fathers to go for paid leave of absence? The idea is good but not realistic. They ought to consider paying the grandparent to look after the child. There are plenty of them out there."