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Last Updated: Monday, 28 March 2005, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Q&A: Working parents' rights
A father with his baby
Fathers are currently entitled to two weeks' paternity leave
Conservative leader Michael Howard is setting out his party's proposal for childcare and maternity pay, which includes an extra 50 a week for at least 250,000 families.

The plan follows a Labour pledge to increase maternity pay, while allowing mothers to receive higher payments and go back to work earlier.

BBC News looks at the three main party's policy on maternity and present maternity and paternity rights in the workplace.

Q: What exactly is Michael Howard proposing?

In a nutshell, more flexible and higher maternity pay.

The Conservatives want more grandparents to become registered childminders, better childcare support and a greater number of workplace nurseries and out-of-school clubs.

Under the Tory plans, maternity pay would be raised by around 1,400.

Also, by 2007, mothers would be able to choose between extending their maternity period and the support they receive from six to nine months, or taking an increased amount for six months.

Working mums would get 90% of average earnings for the first six weeks, followed by a choice of either 33 weeks at 102.80 per week or 20 weeks at 169.62.

By 2009, around 250,000 families would receive 50 a week of working tax credits for each child under the age of five to help with childcare costs.

Q: But won't these plans harm employers?

The Tories say no.

They stipulate that mothers would have to inform their managers after the third month of their maternity leave of their intended return date.

Q: What has the government announced?

From 2007, paid maternity leave will be extended from six to nine months, worth an estimated extra 1,400, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced that mothers will be given the right to transfer their entitlement to paid leave to the father.

Fathers have the right to two weeks' paid paternity leave at present.

In addition, the right to request flexible working from their employer will be extended to all parents of children of school age and women who look after sick or disabled relatives.

At present, parents with children under six can put in a flexible working request.

Q: Have I heard this before?

Yes, you probably have. Much of the government's maternity and paternity rights package was outlined in last December's pre-Budget report.

At the time, Chancellor Gordon Brown said: "The successful economies and societies of the next 20 years will also invest in the potential of all children."

Q: What is the Liberal Democrats position on all of this?

The Liberal Democrats would like to establish Early Years Centres (EYC) which would offer pre-school education, play areas and health check-ups.

Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions spokesman Steve Webb has said he would like to simplify the tax credit system to enable parents to claim.

Q: What maternity rights exist at present?

New mothers are entitled to 26 weeks off, regardless of how long they have worked for their employer.

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) guarantees to pay 90% of average earnings for the first six weeks of leave followed by 20 weeks at 102.80 per week.

New mothers are also entitled to take another 26 weeks of additional leave.

This is usually unpaid, but some companies will contribute.

Q: What rights do I have when I return to work after giving birth?

You should be allowed to take up your old post on the same money as before.

However, if you take more than six months maternity leave, you lose the right to get your old post back.

Under such circumstances, the employer is duty bound to offer you suitable alternative employment.

If a worker is made redundant while on maternity leave, the onus is on the employer to show that they have not been discriminatory.

Since 2003, workers with children under the age of six have the right to ask for flexible working arrangements.

They could ask their employers for permission to work fewer or more family-friendly hours.

The employer can refuse but only if they have a good business reason.

Q: What workplace rights do fathers have?

Fathers have far fewer workplace rights than mothers.

During the pregnancy, they do not have the right to time off to accompany their partner to ante-natal classes or health appointments.

Following birth, they are entitled to two weeks on Statutory Paternity Pay (SPP) of 102.80 per week or 90% of their average weekly earnings if they earn less than 102.80 a week.

Fathers of children under six have the right to request flexible working.

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