EC maternity pay proposals spark concern among employer groups

The EC announced last month that it would like to amend the Pregnant Workers Directive to offer enhanced benefits to new mothers, including the legal entitlement to receive their full salary for 18 weeks, which is three times the current statutory minimum.

This provoked alarm among some employer bodies, and led to reports that employment minister Pat McFadden had told a House of Lords committee that the government was concerned about the potential impact of the plan on employers and was attempting to veto the scheme.

“The UK already has very generous family-friendly policies, so further increases in maternity pay are unnecessary, particularly at such a difficult time for the economy,” said Katja Hall, director of HR policy at the CBI.

There is also a sense that many of the proposals would have little effect in the UK, as Chris Syder, head of employment at international law firm Davies Arnold Cooper, points out. “If the proposals are implemented they will have little practical impact on the statutory maternity leave and pay regime in the UK, because we already have more generous rights than those being proposed,” said Syder.

UK employers exceed the proposals because they have been offering women 12 months’ maternity leave ever since the Work and Families Act (2006) came into force on 1 April 2007. Employers should not be alarmed by the EC’s proposals to increase the minimum period of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks. Similarly, the EC’s proposal to include the right to return from the minimum 18-week maternity leave to the same or equivalent job, and the right to work flexibly, already exist in the UK.

However, the notion that maternity pay during that new, extended, 18-week period should be equivalent to 100% of the last monthly salary or to an average monthly salary has caused some concern to businesses, even though many of them already top up the statutory maternity pay of £117.18 (which will increase to £123.06 from 5 April).

But, as Syder says, the impact of the pay hike could be negligible in any case. “At the moment we pay six weeks at 90% of pay, and 33 weeks of statutory maternity pay, which probably balances it out.”

Other proposals issued by the EC include increasing the period of compulsory leave from two to six weeks after childbirth, and giving employers a duty to provide written reasons for dismissal where a woman is dismissed within six months of the end of her maternity leave.

The current requirement only applies to dismissal during the leave period, and this new duty could be designed to prevent cynical redundancy exercises soon after the mother returns from maternity leave. Yet there is also a sense that the UK is well-placed on family policies.

“The UK doesn’t have to be as apologetic as other countries,” says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “We really are ahead of the game, particularly because of the right to request flexible working.”

In the area of paternity leave, the UK could be said to lag behind the Scandinavian countries of the EU.

In the UK, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is reviewing the former Department for Trade and Industry’s proposal that after 26 weeks of 52 weeks’ maternity leave, the mother could transfer her leave to the father and return to work.

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