By Ian Dunt
Fathers will be able to take six months paternity leave while the child's mother returns to work, according to new plans to be announced by the government today.
Fathers will have the right to take over from the mother during the last three months of her nine-month maternity leave, ministers are expected to say.
They will then be able to take an additional three months off, unpaid, meaning couples can clock up a full 12 months off work when they have their first child.
The first three months of paternity leave is eligible for £123 statutory government pay a week.
The measure would allow couples where the woman earns more to arrange their leave in the most profitable way. It also allows new parents to share the responsibility to the child. New research indicates that men who take an active role in their child's early years are more likely to stick around later in life.
"These proposals will help millions of people balance their work and family life," said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.
"As both parents work in most modern families, it's right that mums and dads should decide who looks after their baby, rather than the state deciding for them by only paying the mother for parental leave.
"Business lobby groups have opposed every new family-friendly right, from flexible working to extended maternity pay. But in reality these changes have hugely benefited millions of families and have had no damaging effect on businesses."
The Tories belittled the move as a pale immitation of their own policies.
Shadow minister for women Theresa May said: "I hope that the government has finally followed our lead and accepted the need for parents to have more flexibility in how they take their paid maternity leave. But Labour's track record implies that this is a pre-election pledge that could be quietly dropped after voters go to the polls.
"Labour went into the last election promising to extend maternity leave to a year, but have broken that pledge, why should anyone trust them on paternity leave now? The truth is that this announcement is a pale imitation of our own proposals."
The Lib Dems were similarly unimpressed.
"The government fails to understand that all families are different and need far more flexibility when it comes to parental leave. Labour seems to think it knows best when it comes to how families should arrange their lives," said Liberal Democrat childrens spokesman David Laws.
"Instead of more rigid and complex reforms, the Liberal Democrats would introduce fully flexible parental leave which can be shared between parents as they see fit."
But the party was also dismissive of the Conservative response to the policy, with officals pointing to a 2006 Times interview with David Cameron in which he said: "The suggestion for the massive extension of paternity leave owes a bit more to political correctness than the realities of life. It could be very disruptive, particularly to small business."
Legal experts adopted a cautious tone. Andrea Ward, at law firm Hogan & Hartson, said the change could affect struggling businesses.
"These concerns relate to the costs involved, as well as the obvious administrative burden of managing the entitlements between two employers, HMRC and the parents involved," she said.
"It is right to recognise the fact that many women earn more than their partners and face difficult choices when balancing work and family life. The idea of giving families more flexibility to manage precious time off and pay following the birth of a child is a good one, but time will tell whether it will work in practice."
The change in the law will constitute a major victory for women's minister Harriet Harman who has championed flexible working throughout her time in government.