Parents in Britain get Europe's worst deal

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British parents are paying the highest price in Europe in terms of salary loss and limited time off work when they choose to have children.

A study published today by the Institute of Education (IoE) shows how badly Britain compares with the rest of Europe. While mothers and fathers in some countries enjoy months off work at full pay during the early years of their child's life, British mothers get minimal benefit payments and fathers are expected to take unpaid leave if they want to spend any time with their infants.

The poor conditions run contrary to the Government's policy of promoting family life and reflect the fact that Labour has introduced only the minimum requirements allowed under a European Union directive.

Campaigners said ministers should now look at providing a combined package of parental leave and childcare for working parents.

Colette Kelleher, director of the Daycare Trust, said: "British parents are very much on their own when they have children, particularly when they try to combine work and parental responsibilities. They receive a lot less help from the state or their employers than people living in the rest of Europe. Britain is still catching up."

Recent research has shown that nearly three-quarters of the population thinks that fathers should have the right to paid leave. Many hoped that Tony Blair, whose fourth child is due on 24 May, would set an example by taking leave, but he has declined to do so, saying he will just cut down on work in the week after the birth.

However, the way parental leave is being introduced in many countries could make it a "poisoned chalice" that increases gender inequalities, said Professor Peter Moss, who edited the IoE report, Parental Leave: Progress or Pitfall?

"If it [parental leave] is to promote gender equality, both in the home and in the workplace, then it has to be equally used by men and women," he said.

"Otherwise, if it is used disproportionately by women, as it is, it may very easily increase inequality by reinforcing gender roles. For when women take leave they drop out of employment, often for relatively long periods, and fathers drop out of sharing work in the home."

Professor Moss said that making parental leave more appealing to men was the way to prevent perpetuating sex inequality at home and at work.

The report shows that parental leave varies widely across the European Union. Britain has Europe's most minimal and inflexible scheme, giving both parents 13 weeks of unpaid leave, which has to be taken in four-week blocks during the first five years of the child's life.

In contrast, the Swedish scheme provides 18 months of paid leave, good flexibility and measures to promote take-up by fathers. Seventy per cent of Swedish fathers take leave, including most senior politicians.