Maternity proposals stun the business community

Government proposals to extend paid maternity leave beyond six months and to
increase paternity pay will push up costs for employers and could increase
feelings of discrimination in the workplace, it is claimed.

The plans – championed by trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt – are
likely to be unveiled at this week’s Labour party conference, but have been met
with concern by business groups.

At present, women receive 90 per cent of their pay for the first six weeks
off, and for the remaining weeks get £102.80 a week.

Hewitt suggests this amount should be paid for an additional six months. As
an alternative, she says that women who want to go back to work should be
allowed to transfer the money to the father in the second six months, if he
stayed at home instead.

Under rules that came into force last year, fathers who take paternity leave
can claim £102.80 a week for a fortnight. But recent figures suggest that only
20 per cent do so because the pay is relatively low.

Hewitt proposes paying fathers 90 per cent of their normal salary for two
weeks, with the taxpayer, rather than the employer, footing the bill.

But business organisations pointed out that, with more employees taking
parental leave, firms would still end up paying more
because of the need to take on temporary staff.

John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI,
told Personnel Today that employers needed more certainty as to how long people
would be off work.

"We will be arguing that if there is to be longer leave, there needs to
be a dialogue around that," he said. "We are suggesting that, at the
halfway point, the employee needs to state their intention.

"At present employees can keep putting off the decision which leaves
employers in the dark."

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agreed that the most
important issue for employers was knowing what the
employee planned to do.

Peter Schofield, director of employment and legal affairs at the EEF
manufacturers’ body, said he was concerned that the labour market was becoming
more and more circumscribed by regulation.

Richard Smith, HR expert at consultancy Croner,
said he believed current provisions for working parents were adequate.

Childless workers do not have equivalent rights to time off work, and Smith
said this could affect productivity by causing conflict in the workplace.

"Childless workers are likely to become demotivated
as they may feel it is unfair that they do not have the same rights to time off
or flexible working," Smith said. "They also face the strain of
picking up additional work when parents are absent."

When questioned at a conference in London
last week on whether employees who don’t have a family may feel discriminated
against, Hewitt refused to be drawn. "There can be a real tension within a
workforce in this situation," she said.

"What really works is giving all employees as much control over their
working hours. We are naturally giving priority to mothers as they are
producing our workforce of the future."

She drew parallels with businesses concerns surrounding the National Minimum
Wage before it was introduced back in 1999.

"We will continue to work in a collaborative fashion [with
business]," she said. "By doing that and getting a balanced view we
have succeeded in making changes that many thought would be burdensome."

Labour’s proposals

– Double paid maternity leave from six to 12 months

– Increase paternity pay from £102 per week to 90 per cent of earnings

– Fathers could take second six months off

– Eight bank holidays on top of four weeks leave

– More flexible working rights for carers

Source: Unfinished Business – Labour’s third term agenda for work

By Mike Berry


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