'Granny leave' plan for employees

Gaby Hinsliff, chief political correspondent
Sunday April 4, 2004
The Observer

Staff with elderly parents to care for could win the right to work fewer hours under radical plans to help Britons juggle jobs and family life. This 'granny leave' would give adults torn between their careers and nursing ailing parents the right to request part-time work or flexible hours, as parents of young children already can.

Working fathers could have more generously paid paternity leave, or even the right to up to six months off after a baby is born, to encourage more male involvement in children's lives. Chunks of leave currently available to either parent of young children could even be earmarked as men-only, 'daddy months' that could not be taken by the mother, to send out a signal that fathers matter.

Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, will call tomorrow for a major national debate over what modern families really want, though she told The Observer: 'We are going to have to work out what our priorities are. 'The more rights and benefits we give mothers, the more we reinforce the assumption that it's the mother who is the parent that matters. So should the priority be more rights for fathers - higher pay for parental leave, or a "daddy month" like they have in some Scandinavian countries?

'But the big question is: do we continue to strengthen the protection and support we can give to parents with young children, or should we think about extending what we have done to carers? There are at least as many people looking after elderly or disabled relatives.'

The Equal Opportunities Commission is pushing for 'granny leave', arguing that while younger women's careers may be held back by child care, for many older women the dilemma is responsibility for elderly parents. Hewitt is seeking ways to build on the success of so-called rights to flexible working, introduced a year ago tomorrow, which allow working parents of children under six to request a cut in their hours. Employers are not forced to agree, but must show they have examined the request seriously.

Nearly a million parents have now made such a request, official figures will reveal tomorrow. Bosses said yes in 80 per cent of the cases surveyed, and there were compromises in another 10 per cent. But men were far less likely than women to ask.

In her speech tomorrow to a conference organised by the charity Fathers Direct, Hewitt will call for a culture shift to make it more acceptable for men to spend time with their children. 'In Sweden, any male politician who didn't take his full parental leave would just be out - it would be unthinkable. You would be seen as a bad father,' she said. Targeting fathers, however, risks alienating some women's groups who say mothers still need most help.

'When you have women on low incomes forced to go back to work when their babies are six months old because they can't afford to take any more leave, there is a question about whether that money should be going to parents as a whole or to mothers,' said Liz Kendall, director of the Maternity Alliance charity.

However, Jack O'Sullivan of Fathers Direct said many men feared that taking the time off they wanted would wreck their career prospects. He wants fathers to receive 90 per cent of their normal pay during paternity leave; flexible working rights to be strengthened, forcing bosses to allow requests for part-time work unless they can show it would harm the business; and for six months' unpaid maternity leave - currently available to women after the first, paid six months has elapsed - to be available either to the mother or the father.

Hewitt's speech will be followed up by meetings to seek the views of parents and employers before family-friendly policies form a key plank of Labour's next general election manifesto.

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