Vince Cable proposes four weeks more parental leave

Father and mother kissing baby The proposals aim to make it easier for parents to share childcare

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Business Secretary Vince Cable has launched a consultation on plans to increase the amount of leave for new parents in England, Scotland and Wales.

The proposals would extend parental leave by four weeks and enable the mother and father to split it between them in a number of blocks.

Currently mothers can take 52 weeks, some of which can be shared by fathers, who can also take two weeks themselves.

Business leaders have expressed concerns about the potential costs.

Six of the 52 weeks currently offered are paid at 90% of the parent's salary. Another 33 are paid at a standard rate of £128.73, which also applies to the additional two weeks offered to fathers.

Since April 2011, fathers and mothers have been able to share some of the 52 weeks' leave, with the father able to take up to six months beginning after the baby is 20 weeks old.

However, this can only be taken as a single block - as can the leave the mother takes.

'Fairer for fathers'

Under the the proposed scheme, which the government says would begin in 2015 at the earliest, the mother would be allowed to take up to 18 weeks straight after the birth, but a following 30 weeks could be split between the parents, and, at their request, broken down into smaller blocks of a few weeks or months.

Of these 30 weeks, 17 would be paid at the standard rate.

However, employers would retain the right to demand the leave was taken in a continuous block, "depending on business needs", the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said.

In addition, both parents would be entitled to an additional four weeks' leave each, and the father would still be offered two weeks' paternity leave straight after the birth, as now.

"These measures are fairer for fathers and maintain the existing entitlements for mothers - but crucially give parents much greater choice over how to balance their work and family commitments," said Mr Cable.

He said the need to minimise costs and bureaucracy had been "at the forefront" of his mind when developing the plans.

"But I'm also confident that we have a good case to make on the wider benefits to business - not least from a motivated and flexible workforce," he said.

Cost fears

Katja Hall, policy director of the Confederation of British Industry, said the organisation was "concerned" about the total increase in parental leave, "given the UK already offers some of the most generous provisions in the world".

The Federation of Small Businesses said the changes would hit small companies "hard" and make administration of parental leave more complicated.

However, Trades Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber welcomed the reforms.

"The extra month of parental leave for dads only builds on reforms brought in by the last government and will encourage more fathers to take time off," he said.

The shadow business secretary, John Denham, said the announcement built on "great strides" that had been made under Labour.

But the government had also "delayed the extension of flexible working to parents with children under 17, removed new employment rights to workers in micro-businesses and are making cuts to vital services such as Sure Start", he said.

Parental leave is a devolved issue Northern Ireland, but current entitlements are similar to those in the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland Assembly said it was "looking closely" at the new proposals.

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