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Changes to maternity and paternity leave could prove costly for Government and employers

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Changes to increase maternity and paternity leave could prove costly to the Government, business and the economy, as well as reducing employees' chances of promotion say legal experts. The proposals from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) could also make it harder for employers to plan ahead and may lead to discrimination of parents, lawyers added.

The EHRC proposals provide that the first 26 weeks of maternity leave, a woman should be paid 90% of her salary (currently a woman receives 90% pay for six weeks). Beyond this leave is to be in three blocks of four-month periods - one for the mother, one for the father and one for either parent. The first eight weeks of each block will be paid at 90% salary and the second half at statutory rate (£123.06 per week.) These blocks can be taken any time until the child's fifth birthday. Currently paternity leave stands at two weeks.

Since employers pay the bulk of maternity pay, reclaiming a large proportion of it back from the government at a later date, the increase in maternity and paternity benefits will mean high-earning parents could cost the government millions of pounds - even though they could take 10 years to come into effect.

The blocks of four-month leave will be like sabbaticals, making it difficult for employers to plan ahead.

Sue Evans, partner at law firm Lester Aldridge, said: "Aside from the cost to the Government these proposed changes could have an adverse effect on mothers and fathers as employers would inevitably find it more difficult (albeit subconciously) not to be discriminatory against employees with young children.

"Employers look at their staff and their input and value to the business. The prospect of promotion and pay increases may be introduced, as the potential impact of long maternity and paternity leave will make it harder to employers to plan ahead."