Paid parental leave to grow

Paid parental leave is tipped to be extended by at least extra four weeks as the Government drafts its response to Labour’s push to boost the taxpayer funded allowance.

Labour list MP Sue Moroney’s bill currently before Parliament proposes an increase from the present 14 to 26 weeks and has the backing of most MPs.

But Prime Minister John Key has rejected that as unaffordable, at a cost of $150 million a year, but has indicated a more modest increase would be on the cards.

Sources said the favoured option was an increase by four weeks to 18 weeks as part of a broader package costing about $100m a year.

Initial plans would also have boosted the current parental tax credit, worth up to $150 a week for eight weeks or $1200 a year, which is the main alternative for those not eligible for paid parental leave.

That could have lifted the credit, paid to about 15,000 people a year, to more than $3000 a year and expand its scope.

It is currently not available to those on paid parental leave or a main benefit, NZ superannuation or receiving a student allowance.

However, sources indicated National’s package may now be changed after Labour’s baby bonus and pre-school package announced on Monday.

Meanwhile, Labour leader David Cunliffe yesterday said he took full responsibility for wording in his state of the nation speech that claimed more parents would receive his planned baby bonus than was actually the case.

‘‘The buck stops with me,’’ he said after earlier saying he did not pen the line promising "for 59,000 families with newborn babies, they will all receive a Best Start investment of $60 per week, for the first year of their child’s life''. 

Details of the scheme showed that the actual figure was about 30,000 because the estimated 29,000 on paid parental leave, worth up to $488 a week, would not receive the payment at the same time. 

However, Cunliffe hit another snag yesterday when he could not explain details of his policy on extending antenatal help.

Speaking to reporters at a Trentham kindergarten, where he was promoting other elements of his early childhood package, he reiterated his promise to provide free antenatal classes to all.

But asked if they were free now, he said: "Not in every case, but I will have to check on the details.''

His advice was they were not generally freely available to everyone, but he could not say who missed out.

Pressed over his knowledge of policy detail he said: "When was the last time you asked John Key a question to five decimal places?"

Labour’s policy package said vulnerable groups, including teenagers, were less likely to attend antenatal classes. And it pointed to a 2009 study that found 10 per cent of participants in antenatal classes were Maori and less than 1 per cent Pasifika. 

The Health Ministry’s website says "there may be some charges for antenatal or childbirth education classes ...". 

Parents may choose to pay for an antenatal class and others may miss out on a free class if the number of available places fills up.

But Labour’s health spokeswoman Annette King said only 40 per cent of parents received antenatal education and of those who did 30 per cent paid for it.

She said Labour would also increase the target for 10-week checks of pregnant mothers to ensure 80 per cent would get them by 2015. Only 63 per cent got them now.

Fairfax Media