Working mums urge uptake of far-reaching new EU maternity proposals

A new directive proposed by the EU to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks at full pay has put working parents and business organisations on a collision course.  A survey carried out by has given strong backing to the proposals, but voices in the business world are warning of dire consequences for women in the workforce.

What are the new proposals?
If the Pregnant Workers Directive is passed by the EU later this month it will mean far-reaching effects on maternity leave in Britain.  Currently, new mums in the UK are entitled to a year’s maternity leave.  During the first six weeks they receive 90% pay, followed by 33 weeks on Statutory Maternity Pay of just under £125 a week.  The final three months of the year are unpaid.  If the planned EU directive gets the thumbs up, women on maternity leave for the first 20 weeks would have full pay.  It’s estimated this would cost the UK £2.5 bn per year.

Our survey said
We asked ”Is extending maternity leave to 20 weeks at full pay in the UK under a new EU directive a good idea?”
Nearly three quarters (72%) wholeheartedly backed the EU proposals and said it was ” vital help” for working mums. Only 14% thought it should not go ahead because it was ”unrealistic” in the current economic climate.  And only one in 10 said the proposals should not go ahead because each EU country should decide its own maternity legislation.

Why do mums want the legislation to be passed?
Michelle Heptinstall  told our poll: ”As a mum of two currently on maternity leave of £120 per week I would definitely be in favour!  I have always worked and earned quite well therefore paid my fair share of taxes.  I am really angry that you either have to have a career or look after your family – it seems that you can’t have both.  In other cultures, all you have to do is look after your baby, your family chips in to help with all the other work.  In this country, we have a baby, have to look after the home, feed on demand, shop, cook, clean, pick up the kids from school, nursery and are forced to work to meet all the costs involved of modern life.  How can that be right?  There are many calls in this country to parent our children better, but something has to give when we have one of the highest cost of living and tax systems in the world.”
Another mum, who wished to remain anonymous, told our survey working parents wanted to spend as much time with their children, particularly in their early years. ”The Government needs to make up its mind,” she said. ”Either we work in the same way as other European countries or we don’t.  They can’t have it both ways.  Many mums go back to their full-time jobs for financial reasons.  The Government is almost forcing this upon them with poor maternity benefits, knowing that they will receive taxes from their employment.”

But can Britain afford it?
Business organisations have warned there could be a backlash against employing women in the workforce if the proposals are implemented. Alistair Tebbit, spokeman for the Institute of Directors (IoD), told ”Public finances are so bad, and likely to be for some time, it’s hard to see how the Government would afford 20 weeks at full pay.  There’s therefore a major risk that if this comes into force the Government would require employers to pick up all of the £2.5bn bill or part of it.  This is the last thing small firms need.
”There is also a wider question about whether it’s desirable to create a new tax, in effect, on employing women.  People who support the proposal should ponder on the unintended consequences. Such a move from Brussels is unlikely to improve the prospects of women in the workplace.”
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has also warned the changes would result in an increase in the cost of maternity and paternity leave, and the Government would put the cost on to the employer.
A spokesperson for the FSB said: ”Under the current maternity and paternity system operated in the UK an employer would pay an employee on maternity leave out of the business’ s funds and claim the full cost back from the Government.  This reimbursement will, we believe, cease, if these proposals go through.
”We all want adequate, flexible maternity and paternity leave but it should be for elected governments in dialogue with parents and their employers to decide how much their economy can afford to give and how it is to be delivered.  These proposals should be about setting minimum EU standards for the health and safety of pregnant workers – not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems.”
But is business using the economic downturn as an excuse to argue against the directive? The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) has warned the difficult economic situation should not be used as a way of failing to address ”inequalities” in the maternity leave system beause it would ”brush the problem under the carpet”.
Belinda Phipps, chief executive of NCT, said: ”Currently, maternity leave payments lag behind minimum wage and create a situation whereby time off to care for young children is not available to those with the lowest resources to rely on.
”Women are faced with the decision to go back too early due to economic pressure, more and more in a tough economic climate.  With that decision comes childcare costs and arrangements as well as unnecessary pressure at such a precious time in their baby’s development.”
She said 20 weeks at full pay would be an ”giant step” in the right direction of creating a family-friendly society.

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