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Plans to give working fathers new rightsHundreds of thousands of new fathers were given a boost at the end of October when the government confirmed plans to give them up to three months' paid paternity leave.
Maternity pay was also increased to nine months, under moves which the government said would increase equality and flexibility in Britain's workplaces.
The proposals were outlined in the work and families bill, published by the trade and industry secretary, Alan Johnson.
He said the bill was designed to create a modern framework of employment rights and maintained that it would have a minimal impact on business despite concerns, especially from smaller firms, that they will suffer because of the new rights.
Under the bill fathers will be able to take up to six months' unpaid leave, but will receive paternity pay for three months if a mother returns to work after six months and before her maternity leave ends.
This would be at the rate of £106 a week, which would be reimbursed to companies by the Treasury.
The Department of Trade and Industry said up to 440,000 fathers could benefit from the plan, which will now go out to consultation.
"This 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," said Mr Johnson.
"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."
Mr Johnson maintained there was broad support from both sides of industry for the "family friendly" measures and he said he was also introducing a number of proposals to make it easier for businesses to deal with workers taking time off.
Under the bill 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.
Unions and campaigners for fathers' rights warmly welcomed the announcement.
"Offering extended paternity leave, with the option of some payment, is an important first step towards reforming our antiquated leave system and giving parents real choice as to who looks after a baby," said Duncan Fisher, chief executive of campaign group Fathers Direct.
"But it will not be a practical option for most families until the new paternity leave is properly paid.
"The government should build on this first step to move more quickly to support properly the huge social change that sees fathers now doing one-third of the practical childcare of the under-fives."
Employers were taken by surprise by the announcement and said the government had underestimated the impact of the new rules on smaller firms.
"Employers have worked extremely hard to adjust to the large volume of family-friendly and flexible working practices introduced by the government over a very short time-frame," said, John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.
"The business community recognises the aspirations of their employees but the unexpected new right for fathers, which wasn't even in the Labour manifesto, has caused concern, particularly among smaller firms.
"This is not just about money, although there will be undeniable pressure to pay occupational paternity pay. Equally importantly this is about planning and the very ability of smaller companies to stay in business".
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