· Features

Abolish maternity leave? Only if you want to disengage the working population

Could putting an end to maternity and other employment legislation help kick-start the UK’s sluggish economy?

That's a suggestion from Steve Hilton, David Cameron's strategy director. Although it's a suggestion unlikely to be adopted by the government, the very fact that it's been mooted has caused controversy.

Hilton is well known for his 'blue-sky' original thinking and many of his ideas never see the light of day. Reportedly he has suggested in the past that the government abolish jobcentres and invest more money in community groups instead, that European labour regulations on temporary workers be ignored, and that the work of hundreds of government press officers could be done better by a handful of bloggers.

I'm all for original thinking. If organisations didn't encourage radical thought, creativity and experimentation, there would be no innovation. But original thinking has to be balanced by responsibility. If there is a chance that your 'out of the box' ideas are going to travel beyond the boundaries of your organisation, as has happened here, you need to be very careful about what you say.

Hilton is a senior civil servant and one of Cameron's closest advisors. Cameron has regularly championed family-friendly policies and made a point of taking paternity leave when his youngest child was born after he became prime minister. UK law currently allows women to take maternity leave for up to 12 months. People everywhere appreciate clear and consistent leadership - whether in corporate or political life. It's somewhat confusing to hear opposing views from two senior people in the same organisation - particularly when that 'organisation' is the one ruling the entire country. What people do appreciate is a sense of shared culture and values which they can understand. It also helps of course if these shared values are positive. Hilton claims to be an advocate of the 'Big Society', a concept championed by Cameron. The 'Big Society' relies on individuals from diverse fields working together and supporting each other to achieve shared aims. It relies on collective responsibility and devolved power. It could be argued that supporting working mothers through the provision of maternity rights is important in a responsible society.

Reportedly, Steve Hilton has suggested that maternity rights are the biggest obstacle to women finding work, because employers find them restrictive. However, looked at positively, maternity provision helps many employers retain skilled, experienced employees, and can save a great deal in recruitment and training costs.

A huge proportion of the UK working population are parents. A big chunk of the money they earn goes straight to the government in the form of taxes. Studies have shown that women are more likely to return to work after a period of protected maternity leave than those who do not enjoy legal maternity rights. Which surely is good news for the government. After all, isn't more people in the workplace exactly what we need to boost economic growth? It may never have been the intention for Steve Hilton's comments to see the light of day. Now that they have, the government would benefit from reiterating its support of family-friendly policies such as maternity rights and demonstrating a clear commitment to UK working parents. Not only would this help to reassure many, it could even boost support - which, at the end of the day, every government needs.

Nicky Little is head of leadership development at Cirrus