The European Commission has announced its intention to push forward changes to a number of family-related employment rights. These include changes to maternity and paternity rights, and rights relating to care for dependants (see box, right, for a summary of the key proposals and their likely impact on employers).
The proposed maternity-related changes are to be implemented through amendments to the existing Pregnant Workers Directive. At present, UK maternity legislation implements the current version of this directive. But, if all goes according to the commission's plans, the directive will be amended next year, which will probably mean that UK employers must comply by 2011.
Employers that have spent the past decade dealing with piecemeal changes to family-related laws are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of more European laws. But it is not the headline proposal for 18 weeks' fully paid maternity leave that is likely to cause the biggest problems for UK employers. Women in the UK can already take up to 52 weeks' maternity leave, so increasing the European minimum to 18 weeks would have no effect here.
A change to full pay for 18 weeks would theoretically offer a significant benefit to women. Currently, UK employers only need to provide higher rate statutory maternity pay (SMP) at 90% of normal weekly earnings for six weeks and then lower rate SMP at a flat rate, usually £117.18 per week. However, the European Court of Justice has already confirmed that the current UK arrangements satisfy the directive, which allows for SMP of less than 100% of pay to be paid provided SMP is greater than statutory sick pay. As currently drafted, the proposed new directive would allow the sick pay cap to continue, so no change to maternity pay would be required here.
Although a European prohibition on dismissing women who are pregnant, on maternity leave or who have recently returned to work could potentially be significant, the differences between the current and the proposed amended directive are not substantially different, even allowing for the proposed new prohibition on preparing to dismiss a woman during maternity leave. The 'new' right to return to the same or similar work after maternity leave in the draft amended direc