Women could have up to a year's leave for maternity

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Mothers could be given maternity leave of up to a year while fathers may be allowed greater flexibility on taking paternity leave under proposals being drawn up by ministers.

Mothers could be given maternity leave of up to a year while fathers may be allowed greater flexibility on taking paternity leave under proposals being drawn up by ministers.

Doubling paid maternity leave from six months is among a series of family-friendly moves being considered by ministers as a way of winning women's votes.

Party strategists are worried Tony Blair is losing support from female voters who have been turned off by the invasion of Iraq and want the Government to focus on health and education issues.

A spokesman for Margaret Hodge, the Children's minister, confirmed yesterday that maternity leave was on the agenda but would not be doubled until 2006.

Business leaders have reacted angrily to the plans, claiming the extra cost could cripple small businesses.

David Frost, the director general of British Chambers of Commerce, warned that extending maternity pay could mean that women of childbearing age would find it more difficult to find jobs. "We are strongly against an increase from six to 12 months of maternity pay. This could cost firms as much as £30,000 per employee," Mr Frost said. "We strongly urge the Government to rethink its position on this. This does not support business. It is merely a measure to attract more votes."

Labour believes that its drive to help women with children to stay in work has been a success. Almost 70 per cent of women now return to work before their child's first birthday - compared with 24 per cent in 1981.

However, ministers are examining the findings of a government-funded study which found that low-quality day care for the under-twos could worsen the behaviour of three-year-olds. A Government spokesman said the study, by the University of London's Institute of Education, would be examined, although most research suggested that day care led to increased sociability and faster development in young children.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, pledged more support and cash to help mothers and young children, particularly those living in poverty.

In a speech to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Mr Brown announced plans to set a new target "to halve the numbers of children suffering from material deprivation - children lacking basic necessities the rest of us take for granted."

His pledge comes on top of a promise to reduce the number of children in low-income households by April 2005 by at least a quarter and to reduce child poverty by half by 2010.

Mr Brown said yesterday that eradicating child poverty was a key goal of the Government. It was, he said, "the obligation this generation owes to the next." He warned that failure to "find it within ourselves to pay attention to them as young children, may force us to pay attention to them as troubled adults tomorrow."

The Chancellor revealed that, in the new round of government spending next week, he would announce funding for the creation of children's centres across the country.

Within four years, 1,700 children's centres, combining nurseries, pre-school education and family support and health advice, would be established in the most deprived areas.

The drive to establish more support for child care and children will be a key focus of Labour's third term and its election manifesto. This week Labour MPs discussed the creation of new policies on "family and the community" which included proposals to give "flexible maternity and paternity leave allowing either parent to take the allocated leave".

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