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Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice

7 December 2000 - After much leaking to the press, the Green Paper on "Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice" has been released.

Stephen Byers said:

"Working patterns have changed dramatically over the last 25 years. But help for working parents has largely gone unchanged. Too many parents are struggling under the heavy demands of coping with children and trying to hold down a job.

"I am convinced that we need to do more to help them. Simply doing nothing is not an option.

"As standards of living improve, quality of life becomes an issue for us all.

"I don't want mothers to drop out of the labour market because they feel they don't have enough support or flexibility. We need to retain their valuable skills and experience.

"We also need to answer the calls from fathers who can't afford to take time off to be with their new baby."

The Green Paper sets out a number of options based on a comprehensive review of work and parents by the UK Government. Responses are invited over the next three months. The main options are:

* 2 weeks paid paternity leave for fathers;
* a lengthening of the period during which maternity leave is paid to 6 months;
* an extention of unpaid maternity leave so that a mother could stay at home for upto 1 year;
* the sharing of any increase on the existing unpaid maternity leave period equally between mother and father;
* an increase in the flat rate for maternity pay - at present 60.20 per week;
* allowing adoptive parents - male or female - to take paid leave in the same way as maternity leave when a child is adopted;
* increasing the parental leave available to parents of disabled children beyond the present 13 weeks.

There are also a number of options regarding flexible working involving either legislation or incentives to businesses. These include:

* Allowing women returning early from maternity leave to work reduced hours for the remaining period;
* offering fathers the right also to work reduced hours until the end of maternity leave;
* allowing both parents a right of opting for reduced work hours for as long as they wish after the end of the maternity leave period;
* but providing all employers a right to refuse requests to work reduced hours if they would harm the business;
* an exemption for employers with a determined number of employees from granting requests to work reduced hours, excepting those from mothers for a short time;
* introduction of a kitemark for businesses committed to a suitable code that could be removed if flexible working opportunities were removed. This would be
* a challenge fund for small businesses to cover some of the initial costs of providing more flexible working opportunities.

Stephen Byers went to say:

"But the concerns of business cannot be ignored, particularly the small firms which energise our economy. Our proposals take these concerns into account. They will also provide more help for business partly by simplifying existing legislation, by providing more targeted support and better advice and guidance. "I don't believe we need to make a choice between either helping families or helping businesses. The right policies will not only support parents but also enable business to recruit and retain skilled staff thereby increasing productivity and helping the UK to remain competitive.

"It's not possible to take away all the strains from being a busy working parent but we do need a much more flexible culture. We need to know what working parents and employers would find most useful so that we can create a better balance.

"A society where being a good parent and good employee are not in conflict is a prize for us all and one which I believe we can achieve.

"This is a real step along the path towards achieving a fair and lasting deal for parents working in a modern society."

Further measures proposed to make life easier for businesses include:

* allowing more small-and-medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to qualify for compensation in respect of the money they pay out in maternity pay;
* encouragement by the Inland Revenue for SMEs to make use of their right to seek maternity payments in advance, hence assisting cash flow problems;
* more help from the Employment Service and private recruitment agencies to manage absences on parental leave;
* improved guidance and advice for employers including through the internet and information packs.

According to the Minister for Women, Margaret Jay:

"It is vital that people can fulfil their potential both as employees and parents. By consulting and therefore getting the measures we introduce right, we will benefit everyone - families and business alike. Women now make up almost half of the workforce, so maintaining their attachment to the labour market is crucial to the economic success of our country.

"Employers are increasingly realising the competitive edge to be gained from offering flexible work packages - savings of millions in recruitment and retention, increased loyalty and reduction of sickness and absenteeism. This is a package for families and strong family life and it is a package for successful business."


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