Working mothers get one-year maternity bonus

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Mothers could be entitled to six months' paid maternity leave plus another six months at home with their babies, under a Government programme of radical reforms to support working parents.

Mothers could be entitled to six months' paid maternity leave plus another six months at home with their babies, under a Government programme of radical reforms to support working parents.

For the first time, fathers will be entitled to a fortnight's paid leave worth at least £120, if proposals in the Green Paper on working families are endorsed by Parliament.

Adoptive parents, now ineligible for maternity leave, will get state payments to stay at home to look after their children, and families with disabled children will also be allowed more unpaid time off.

The planned reforms, to support the family and encourage mothers with children not to leave work, were launched yesterday by Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary.

Ministers plan to consult business and industry about increasing the flat rate of maternity pay, from £60.20 a week to £100, so new parents are not forced to return to work early through financial hardship.

Parents will be given more scope to work flexible or shorter hours after their children are born. Mothers who return to work before their child reaches a year old will have an automatic right to go part-time.

Fathers will also be able to work fewer hours until the end of maternity leave unless their employer can prove it will damage their business.

The proposals, in consultation until March, include the option of allowing "both parents the right to opt to work reduced hours for as long as they wish, when the maternity leave period ends".

An opt-out is likely for employers who can prove that allowing flexible working could harm their business.

"Working patterns have changed dramatically over the last 25 years," said Mr Byers. "But help for working parents has largely gone unchanged. I don't want mothers to drop out of the labour market because they feel they don't have enough support or flexibility. We need to retain their valuable skills and experience."

Employers' interests would be protected, he added, and they could apply "harm test" to establish whether their business would be hit if mothers and fathers took more time off.

There are 7.29 million families in Britain with at least one dependent child under 18; at least five million of these are two-parent families. More than three million parents stay at home to look after children who are mostly under five.

The increase in maternity pay is designed to help mothers to stay at home for their entitlement. Only 30 per cent take the full 18 weeks because the payment is felt inadequate.

Parents' groups and trade unions welcomed the changes bbut feared smaller firms would face extra costs.

"With the best will in the world, it is not always practical to offer part-time work to full-time employees," said John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI. "Requiring companies to do so would be unworkable and unnecessary. It would result in more people going to tribunals to thrash out what they can and cannot do."

The new proposals will not become law until after the next election but will be a key part of Labour's manifesto. The Government is expected to set out its final proposals in the spring.

Fathers Direct, the national information centre for fatherhood, said paid maternity leave would be "a major step forward". Tom Beardshaw, the campaigns manager, said: "Fathers need to be with their families after the birth, so they gain confidence and learn quickly about parenting. Crucially, the first fortnight is when health visitors train new parents at home. If fathers are at work, they miss out and their children suffer."

The Adoption Forum said recognition that parents who adopt should also have paid leave was "very welcome indeed".