The British government plans to give fathers up to six months paternity leave and a year off work for mothers will help tackle the UK’s long hours culture, campaigners said tonight.
Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson maintained there was broad support from both sides of industry for the “family friendly” measures and said he was also introducing a number of proposals to make it easier for businesses to deal with workers taking time off.
Mr Johnson said he came from a generation where men went down to the pub following the birth of their child and bought everyone a drink, but times had changed.
More and more fathers wanted to take paternity leave to be with their newborn children and Mr Johnson argued that this was also good for business because workers were more productive when they were happy and enjoyed flexible arrangements.
The minister said the aim was not to encourage a higher birth rate, adding: “This is not breed your way to economic success.
“We think there is a growing interest by fathers in taking a role in the first year of a child’s life.”
He said around 9,000 fathers are expected to take up the chance of extra leave.
Unions and campaign groups welcomed the announcement, but said it was only a first step towards reforming the UK’s “antiquated” leave system.
But business groups said the new rights would cause problems, especially for smaller firms.
Under the Work and Families Bill a father will be able to take additional paternity leave after the first six months of a child’s birth if the mother has returned to work.
Fathers will be entitled to take 26 weeks leave, although no date has yet been set for when the changes will be introduced.
Mr Johnson said: “Today’s bill delivers on our commitment to help working parents balance the demands of their job with caring for their children by introducing a modern framework of rights and responsibilities that offers real choice and flexibility.
“To help mothers we will extend paid maternity leave to nine months with the aim of increasing it to a year.
“Increasingly fathers want to play a more active role in bringing up their children so we will help them take time off when the mother returns to work by introducing a new right to paternity leave.”
Statutory maternity pay will be increased to nine months from April 2007 with the ambition of moving it to a year by the end of the current Parliament.
The right to request flexible working, currently limited to parents of young children, will be extended to carers from April 2007.
The Government also announced that it wanted to introduce so-called “keeping in touch days” so that women on maternity leave can go into work for a few days without losing their statutory pay.
The period of notice for returning to work from maternity leave will be extended to two months.
The whole package of new rights will cost the Government around £360 million a year.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said the extra paternity leave was good for fathers, for babies and for society.
“It will encourage fathers to take more responsibility for their children and encourage more employers to adopt family-friendly policies.”
Mr Prentis said he hoped the measure would help tackle the UK’s long hours working culture which damaged the relationship between children and their parents.
He added: “Business will benefit too because working parents are more productive if they are not worried about their children.”
Jenny Watson, acting chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: “The Government has made the first step in response to the social revolution that has taken place in homes up and down Britain.
“Eight out of ten working dads will be happy to stay at home and look after their baby. Paid paternity leave will finally give them the opportunity to do this.”
CBI deputy director general John Cridland said: “Businesses were willing to support the Government’s plans to extend maternity and flexible working rights, provided that the inevitable administrative burden was shared.
“But today’s announcement introduces an unexpected new right for fathers and leaves employers guessing as to whether they will be able to hand back to the Government the burden of administering maternity pay.
“The Government cannot have its cake and eat it. If it is genuinely committed to better regulation, it must observe its own ’one-in-one-out’ philosophy in this major policy area.
“Smaller businesses in particular should not be ignored. They need to see a reduction in the endless stream of administrative burdens being imposed upon them.”
Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute of Directors, said: “Allowing new parents to trade off their maternity and paternity leave will hopefully benefit employers.
“If the mother is the more highly skilled and productive parent and returns to work sooner than expected, while her partner cares for the child, many businesses will suffer less disruption than under the present arrangements.”
The IoD said it backed most aspects of the Bill, but it was still concerned that businesses will have to stump up maternity and paternity pay and then recoup the money from the Government.
Martin Temple, director general of the Engineering Employers’ Federation, said: “The Government has not lived up to its own challenge of delivering better regulation with these proposals.
“Whilst some provisions are welcome, the new rights will create yet further reasons why employees can be absent from work.”
Alan Tyrrell, employment chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “It is a fact that 97% of businesses in the UK employ less than 20 people.
“Such employers will find it very difficult to put in place arrangements to hire suitably-trained staff to take the place of employees who have children.”
However, Kate Bellamy of the Fawcett Society said: “The Government has taken a step in the right direction, but it needs to go much further.
“As they are, these proposals will do little to encourage men to take up paternity leave and indeed risk reinforcing the stereotype that caring for children is still primarily a women’s job.”
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “This Bill is another significant step along the road to making work family-friendly.
“It is good news for today’s and tomorrow’s working parents. New mothers will get another three months’ paid leave and the law is beginning to recognise that modern fathers also want to have a proper role in caring for their children.”
Phillip Noyes, NSPCC director of public policy, said: “Proposals that will enable fathers to take a full and active part in their child’s care and upbringing are to be welcomed.
“The Government’s plans to offer new fathers extended paternity leave is a move in the right direction. If implemented this would mark a step up but not a step change in supporting families with young children.
“We do have some concerns that it will not be practical for very many fathers to afford to take up these new rights.”