The right to apply for unpaid leave in the event of a family emergency has been extended to enable an extra 4.5 million parents to benefit.

Current employment legislation states that only parents of children aged six and under are entitled to take unpaid leave from work if their son or daughter is sick.

But under a new deal agreed between the government and trade unions, parents with children under 16 will be able to apply for unpaid leave under the same circumstances.

They will also be able to request time off without pay if their offspring are suffering with exam stress.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown believes the policy will provide more flexibility for working parents and help to strengthen family units.

But Neil Carberry, head of employment policy at the CBI, has insisted the move could have a detrimental effect on small employers.

"In the current economic climate, now is not the time to burden them with another employment regulation," he remarked.

Meanwhile, UK employees could also benefit from government proposals which would allow them to request time off work for training purposes.