Head to Head: extending parental leave rights

In May the European Parliament voted against extending the minimum length of parental leave across the EU to 20 weeks for mothers and two weeks for fathers. What impact does this have on UK employers? Is it the end of the matter? And does it further confuse an area that already suffers from over-complication and a series of conflicting plans?

Q Does the vote signal the end of EU plans to extend parental rights?

Mary Honeyball MEP, member of the women’s committee of the European Parliament
I was disappointed the vote went against the report, as it was a very progressive measure. But it has only been referred back to the committee rather than completely defeated, which is unusual. Sweden is due to hold the presidency soon and when that happens it may well reappear.

Alistair Tebbit, head of EU and employment policy, Institute of Directors
Nothing ever goes away in Brussels. It’s just a question of whether ideas take a slow route to something or nothing.But I’m not convinced member states will ever find a one-size-fits-all measure acceptable because it’s such a nationally sensitive issue.

Q Is the defeat a sign of the economic times?

Honeyball It was going to be expensive, but if this had come up a year ago there wouldn’t have been an issue with it. I don’t think it was stopped on the grounds of any great principle. People just felt it wasn’t the right time to be doing this sort of thing.

Tebbit It wasn’t great timing and I’m rather surprised the European Parliament took such a radical view because the idea of paying 90-100% of wages was always going to be very expensive. Assuming the UK government maintains the maternity pay system as it’s designed, it would mean the tax payer having to pay hundreds of millions of pounds.

Q What difference would it have made to the UK?

Honeyball At the moment we’re not good. We do allow women to take a year off unpaid, but most women can’t afford to do that, as the statutory amount is not very generous – in fact, it’s one of the worst in Europe. We also have no mandatory paternity leave, so it would have made quite a big difference to the UK.

Tebbit In the UK we have very long leave periods but are not massively generous with pay after the first six weeks. So the extension of leave would not have been a big deal. Maternity pay is the more important issue as any extension will create a big bill that has to be paid.

Q Is there confusion surrounding parental leave?

Honeyball Yes – it would be a good idea to have someclarity. The difficulty is that there isn’t any kind of consensus on what should be happening – particularly at a European level where there are huge differences between cultures and traditions. That’s why a European directive would have been good.

Tebbit At the moment there are a lot of entitlements lying around. Some are paid, some unpaid, some paid more than others, and it all seems a bit of a mess. So there is a certain logic to tidying them up so parents can draw down their entitlements and share them between mother and father.

Q Will fathers be given more rights?

Honeyball Yes, but it will require a huge cultural change. The European report did allow two weeks’ paternity leave, so there was a move in this direction. There are countries like Sweden that offer this and it is accepted as parental leave for the first year, rather than maternity leave. So it can be done, and it is the way things need to move.

Tebbit It’s anachronistic for all the rights to go to the mother. When this government came into power, paid maternity leave was something like 18 weeks and they gradually extended it. But arguably this has reinforced the stereotype that it’s the mother who takes the time out, has an extended career break, and loses seniority and experience. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest the pay gap stems from this, and we are looking at the idea that parents should have the ability to share leave as it would make the whole thing more equitable.

Q Should business be taking a lead in this area?

Honeyball Every time there’s any type of work-based legislation, the CBI and others immediately oppose it. They would be much better off if they were more selective about what they opposed. The fact is, women should be employed and as a result of that you have to make proper provision for maternity. It needn’t be a long-term burden, as if you keep hold of a woman who has experience, is trained and is qualified, you retain all of that in the workforce. If she leaves, then all of that investment is gone. The CBI and others are quite short-sighted about it.

Tebbit Whatever system is introduced it has to be something an employer can deal with. You can lose a lot of staff very quickly for extended periods of time through maternity – the Equality and Human Rights Commission has added leave entitlements up to something like 72 weeks – and we have to be careful we don’t extend these periods. We are all for career breaks and flexibility in the labour market, but it has to be done in a way that is manageable.

Q What should HR be doing to prepare for the future?

Honeyball HR should just watch this space as the issue hasn’t gone away. There may or may not be a UK government initiative on parental leave, but it is certainly being discussed. Plus, there’s a good chance the issue will come back to the European Parliament. I’m afraid people will not really know where the legislation is going for a little bit longer yet.

Tebbit Life as an HR manager is quite difficult as the sector is in constant change. So all HR can do is keep an eye out for changes and deal with the problems as they arise.


The view from Europe

At first glance, the UK provides far more maternity benefits than the EU requires. But a UK mother earning £15,000 a year still accumulates just £3,700 in benefits over six months, compared with £4,100 in Ireland, £4,150 in Germany, and £4,750 in France, Spain and the Netherlands.

Pay in Italy over the same period totals £6,280, while in Denmark and Norway it is £7,700. Hungary has the highest level of maternity benefits in the Eastern European countries surveyed – women are entitled to £5,000 after six months’ leave, compared with £4,750 in Poland and £1,450 in the Czech Republic.

At 96 weeks, Sweden offers the most paid maternity leave in Europe, followed by Norway (52 weeks) and Denmark (50). At 39 weeks, the UK ranks above the Czech Republic (28), Hungary (24), France (16, for first and second child), Poland (16 for first child), the Netherlands (16), Spain (16) and Germany (14).

Source: Mercer


Have your say

Audrey Williams, partner and head of discrimination law, Eversheds

I’m not convinced that businesses should be making changes other than to ensure they are fully compliant with the revised rights around maternity and pregnancy non-discrimination planned in the Equality Bill. Maternity provisions in the UK tend to be more generous than required by minimum European obligations. So it may be that changes will focus on the question of paternity rights and fathers getting time off with more income security. The current parental flexible working right and the right to two weeks’ paternity leave include no obligation to maintain pay – just a statutory payment, which may deter the taking of leave.

Chris Syder, employment law specialist, Davies Arnold Cooper

In October 2008, the European Commission published proposals to amend the Pregnant Workers Directive to improve minimum maternity rights. Several of its proposals provide greater rights for women, so will result in amendments to UK legislation. For instance, the UK currently requires two weeks’ compulsory leave after the birth. The EC plans to increase this to six weeks. However, given the current economic uncertainty and that the government envisages the measures would not be implemented until at least 2011, UK employers should work on the basis that our maternity legislation will not change dramatically in the near future.

Robert Washington, associate, employment team, Hogan & Harston

In recent years, the UK has witnessed a cultural shift from within. In 2006, the Employment Rights Act was amended to include a power for the government to introduce additional paternity leave allowing fathers to take up to half of the mother’s 52-week leave entitlement, and effectively share the maternity leave. In April 2009, the Equality and Human Rights Commission also published Working Better, a report on parental rights, which recommends a 10-year plan to implement a gender-neutral parental leave scheme. Looking at these it seems clear there will be a shift towards a more gender-neutral parental regime in the future.

Charis Damiano, consultant, CM Murray

Getting the balance right is difficult. Last year there was a backlash in the UK against extending maternity rights further; there are concerns that businesses may stop employing women of childbearing age. However, opening up the debate on pay is a step forward and may result in a proper analysis of women’s financial needs during maternity leave. Businesses should start looking at their maternity leave policies and retention rates for women. If they provide more of a financial cushion during maternity leave, it may prove easier to retain the best talent and prepare for possible changes to European maternity laws in the future.


The UK position

  • Women fill about 13.6 million jobs in the UK. Yet parenthood has a drastic effect on what they do and how they do it:
  • More than two-thirds of mothers (68%) are in employment, compared with 73% of women without children.
  • The age of the youngest child makes a huge difference: 57% of women whose youngest child is under five are employed, compared with 71% of those whose youngest child is aged five to 10 and 78% whose youngest child is aged 11 to 15.
  • About 90% of fathers are in employment regardless of the age of their youngest child. They’re also more likely to be employed than men without children.
  • 38% of mothers work part-time, compared with 22% of non-mothers. Only 4% of fathers work part-time.
  • Just 56% of lone mothers are in employment, compared with 72% of married or cohabiting mums.
  • Flexible working is used by just under a third of mothers and a fifth of fathers.

Source: National Statistics

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