The Independent

Thursday, October 14, 1999

Double maternity leave to a year, says Harman

The Independent

Harriet Harman called on the Government yesterday to extend maternity leave from six months to a year and to give mothers the right to return to work part time so that they can spend more time with their children.

In a presentation to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, the former social security minister suggested replacing statutory maternity pay with a new "baby tax credit", which would be paid not by an employer but directly from the Government. This would give women more choice over whether to stay at home or go to work for the first year of their child's life.

Ms Harman estimates that extending support to non-working mothers would add pounds 80m a year to the pounds 5bn Working Family Tax Credit bill.

"These are a set of policies that give women the choice about when and how they go back to work," she said. "The status quo is not good enough. We need to modernise the maternity laws and have a debate about how to support mothers returning to work. This is not the last word but the first word," she said. "It is not about the Government leading, but following the changes in women's lives."

The numbers of women entering the labour market have increased sharply in the past 15 years. In Britain 49 per cent of mothers go back to paid work before their babies reach their first birthdays.

"Most of these women were brought up by mothers who stayed at home to look after them," said Ms Harman. "It has been a huge social change within one generation. Mothers are redefining motherhood to be about providing for their children as well as caring for them."

Her proposals follow new research showing that mothers who want to give their children the best start in life should stay at home to look after them as babies for a year.

The research commissioned by Ms Harman, in conjunction with the Smith Institute, showed that children over the age of one year benefited if their mothers went out to work but suffered if they were left at home when they were less than 12 months old.

The study involved 11,000 men and women born in 1958 and their children. It was conducted by Heather Joshi at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies in London.

Professor Joshi assessed the children on reading, maths, aggression, and anxiety. Children whose mothers went out to work after they were a year old did better on maths and had lower anxiety when compared with children of non-working mothers. Those whose mothers went back to work before they were a year old did worse on reading tests at a later stage.

The indications of the study are that from the age of one onwards it appears to make no difference to most children whether they are looked after by a nanny, a childminder or a relative, as long as they experience some different care from that which is routinely provided by the mother.