Panic set in yesterday as trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt announced far-reaching maternity reforms that could see businesses grapple with extended leave and further calls for family-friendly working.
The proposal include:
- extensions to maternity pay from six to nine months by April 2007 with the goal of a year’s paid leave by the end of the next parliament
- transferable leave between mothers and fathers
- extension to the right for parents to request flexible working from the 3.7 million with children under six to a further 1.8 million who currently look after sick or disabled relatives
Hewitt said: “Those people looking after a sick or disabled relative are doing incredible work for the whole of society, so we are looking at how we can extend the rights to them.”
But bosses’ group the CBI condemned the proposals warning that the extension to family-friendly working rights could impose an enormous burden on small businesses.
Deputy Director-General John Cridland said: “Extending family-friendly rights to this extent threatens to make life extremely difficult for small firms.”
On maternity reforms, Cridland called on the government to give more notice of return to work and take back administration of maternity pay:
“Maternity leave notification periods must be improved as current arrangements leave too much room for uncertainty. Return to work notice periods should be increased to three months and employers need to be able to contact mothers during maternity leave to confirm when they will be returning to work.”
On both parents sharing maternity leave, Cridland said: “Keeping track of which parent was exercising which right would potentially pose an administrative nightmare and it would be unreasonable to expect firms to police this system. The government must present business with an easy administration system to coordinate shared maternity leave.”
Hewitt is reported to be exploring the option of the Inland Revenue taking over the administration of maternity pay.
According to the Times, the package will start to compete with the much vaunted Swedish allowance:
- Australia one year parental leave, unpaid
- France 16 weeks’ paid maternity, two weeks paid paternity
- Germany 14 weeks’ paid maternity, no paternity
- Ireland 26 weeks’ maternity, 70% paid up to 18 weeks, no statutory paternity
- Italy 21 weeks’ maternity, up to 80% paid, paternity if mother is ill
- Sweden no specific maternity, parental leave up to 460 days shared, up to 80% paid
Despite the good news for mothers, the Maternity Alliance say that millions of women won’t be able to take advantage of the plans to extend paid leave to a year.
Under the proposals, only the first six weeks of leave will have to be paid at 90% of full pay by employers with the remainder paid at the statutory amount of 102.80 per week, a figure that the Alliance fear is too low to help most women stay at home.
A spokesperson for the Alliance told the Daily Telegraph, “The proposals will not make an awful lot of difference to people.”
The Trades Union Congress have, however, applauded the move.
General Secretary Brendan Barber said: “The proposals announced today would make a real difference to the lives of working parents and go a long way towards making their lives less stressful. Most mothers and fathers would jump at the chance of being able to spend more time at home with their babies, and any move that allows new fathers to play a greater role in the first few months of their children’s lives is to be welcomed.
“It’s also good to see the Government considering extending the right to request to work flexibly to carers and the parents of older children – everyone at work should be able to benefit from a better work/life balance.”
In the wake of the announcements, Prime Minister, Tony Blair has been attempting to smooth things over with angry employers. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour he emphasised the Government’s commitment to consult business leaders fully before changing the law to allow mothers to transfer part of their maternity leave to fathers.