Women may get a year off work after having babies under a new package of "family-friendly" policies drawn up by the Labour Government. A proposal to extend maternity leave from six months to a year is a front-runner for inclusion in Labour's manifesto at the next general election.

Women may get a year off work after having babies under a new package of "family-friendly" policies drawn up by the Labour Government. A proposal to extend maternity leave from six months to a year is a front-runner for inclusion in Labour's manifesto at the next general election.

The state could pay part of the wages of some mothers for 12 months. Options under consideration include restricting the payments to basic rate taxpayers or women receiving the working families tax credit.

The idea is gaining support at Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, which will publish a Green Paper setting out the Government's proposals on parental leave in November.

Tony Blair wants to regain the initiative on the family but is anxious not to alienate business leaders, who have complained about the growth in red tape since Labour came to power. But industry is less worried about allowing women to get their jobs back after 12 months than other ideas suggested by pressure groups, such as giving returning mothers a right to work part-time or flexible hours.

At present, women are entitled to six weeks off on 90 per cent of their normal wage, followed by a further 12 weeks at a flat rate of £60.20 a week, less than one-third of the average wage. Five European countries give full pay throughout maternity leave, for periods of between 14 and 18 weeks.

Harriet Harman, the former Social Security Secretary, will call today for 12 months' maternity leave to be one of the five keynote pledges on which Labour fights the next general election.

She will tell a fringe meeting at the TUC conference in Glasgow that the proposal would tackle child poverty, support families and help women struggling to combine work and home. She will say the proposals will make it easier for mothers to breast-feed their babies

"The first year after the birth is crucial," Ms Harman said yesterday. "Poverty in the first 12 months of a baby's life makes it more likely to suffer lifelong health problems. Babies and mothers benefit when the mother can stay with the baby until its first birthday if she wants to."

Ms Harman, who remains a close ally of Mr Blair and the Chancellor Gordon Brown, believes the plan will appeal to women in Middle England.

Although they have a higher standard of living than women in Labour's traditional heartlands, they also have high mortgage and financial commitments which prevent them taking off as much time as they think they need. A Cabinet Office report today said a woman of average skill will lose £140,000 in earnings by having two children. This is on top of a "gender-earnings gap" of £241,000.

But research showed the income lost by mothers had halved over two decades. In 1980, a mid-skilled mother, for example, a clerical worker with GCSE qualifications, lost more than half her potential earnings after having her first child; now she will lose a quarter.

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