Maternity Rights – Government consults on Pregnant Workers DirectiveMonday, April 6th, 2009
The European Commission published a proposal to amend the Pregnant Workers Directive in October 2008. The Directive sets out the minimum levels of maternity rights, including leave and pay, that EU member states must provide.
The UK already has, in some respects, generous maternity leave and pay entitlements and the new consultation document published by the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) addresses in particular the areas where UK legislation may have to be reviewed to meet the proposed changes to the Directive’s minimum requirements.
The following Table compares, in summary, the Commission’s proposals and the current UK provisions.
The principal aspects of maternity leave and pay that the proposed changes would affect are:
- allowing leave to start at any time after the start of pregnancy, as long as six weeks are taken after the birth
- the level at which the cap on SMP is set after the first six weeks.
The earliest point from which maternity leave may start under current rules is 11 weeks before the expected week of birth. If this were changed so that a woman could start her leave as soon as she could provide evidence of pregnancy, and perhaps after a period of notice, it would mean that employers would have a much shorter period to plan for cover and the woman could be returning to work within 13 weeks of the baby’s birth.
The rate at which SMP is paid is based on average earnings in the two months preceding the qualifying week, i.e. the 26th week of pregnancy*. If maternity leave could start at any time after the start of pregnancy, the qualifying week would have to be moved to an earlier week. Currently a woman only has to have 26 week’s service in the qualifying week to qualify for SMP, so she may only have just started in the employment when she conceives. If, as proposed, she could start her leave much earlier, the qualifying period of employment may have to be reduced or scrapped altogether. It also leaves a question mark over which two-month period could be used to determine average earnings.
The objective behind the proposal for full pay during maternity leave is to prevent women having to return to work early for financial reasons. The existing six weeks at 90% of average earnings fits well with the proposal for compulsory leave to be increased to six weeks. But the £123.06 maximum for a further 33 weeks is only 30% of the £412 median weekly pay for women working full-time in the UK.
The consultation period runs until 22 June 2009. Comments may be sent by letter, fax or email, or online at http://tinyurl.com/cku6gz.
* On the basis that a normal pregnancy may be between 39 and 41 weeks, HMRC’s guidance equates the expected week of childbirth with the 41st week of pregnancy. This errs in favour of a woman in one specific situation, namely where her baby is stillborn. See http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/spmmanual/SPM20745.htm
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