Hundreds of thousands of working mothers are set to receive an increase in paid maternity leave as the first changes under the government's Work and Families Act are introduced.
Businesses will also benefit from a package of measures designed to make life easier for employers, according to employment minister Jim Fitzpatrick.
"The introduction of 'Keeping in Touch' days will mean, where employers think it is helpful, mothers, if they agree, would be able to go into work for a few days during their maternity leave to stay in touch with developments at work," he said.
"This would only be where employers and the mother find the arrangement acceptable, but generally this should help ensure mothers have a smooth return to work when their leave ends."
The new arrangements will benefit employers by helping them plan ahead and manage maternity leave with greater certainty, Fitzpatrick said.
From 1 October, statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance and statutory adoption pay increased from six months to nine months for babies due on or after 1 April 2007, or adoption placements from that date.
It is estimated that these changes will benefit around 400,000 mothers each year. This is a first step towards the government's aim of introducing 12 months paid maternity leave.
In addition, the new regulations:
- double the amount of notice required from one to two months for women wanting to change their return to work dates from maternity leave
- introduce up to 10 'Keeping in Touch' days to allow mothers to go into work and stay in touch with developments and training there without bringing their leave to an end or losing out on maternity pay
- simplify the administration of maternity payments and allow employers to adjust them in line with their normal payroll procedures; and
- extend the eligibility for additional maternity leave to all pregnant employees where births are due on or after 1 April 2007.
As part of these changes, all new mothers will be provided with a new booklet Pregnancy and Work – What you Need to Know, which can be shared with their employer so they are each clear about their respective rights and responsibilities to each other.
Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: "Keeping in