UK reaction to European Parliament vote to extend maternity leave

In October 2010, the UK government and a range of employers’ groups strongly criticised the European Parliament’s proposed amendments to the pregnant workers’ directive. Among other things, the amendments would extend the right to maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay and provide two weeks’ paid paternity leave, as well as offering stronger protection for pregnant workers’ rights. Trade unions supported the move, despite the increased costs the changes would impose.

On 20 October 2010, the European Parliament gave a first reading to a draft directive proposed by the European Commission that would strengthen the existing pregnant workers’ directive (Directive 92/85/EEC). In a move viewed as highly controversial by the UK government and many employers’ groups, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour of a range of amendments to the Commission’s proposal. If adopted, these would provide for:

  • 20 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay;
  • two weeks of paid paternity leave;
  • adoption leave;
  • time off for breastfeeding;
  • restrictions on overtime working by workers who are pregnant or breastfeeding;
  • improved guarantees for workers returning from maternity leave;
  • stronger protection from dismissal.

UK government position

The UK government indicated its opposition to the European Parliament’s amendments, arguing that the proposed increase to paid maternity leave would be too costly in the context of the economic downturn. According to the BBC, the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said it was ‘very disappointed’ by the vote and was quoted as saying: ‘We know other Member States share our concerns about the real costs of this directive.’

Adoption of the measures proposed by the European Parliament would lead to major changes in statutory maternity pay arrangements in the UK. Women are currently entitled to 90% of normal pay for six weeks, followed by up to 33 weeks at a flat rate of GBP 124.88 (€146.27 as at 15 December 2010) – or 90% of their average weekly earnings if this figure is lower. At present, UK employers can recover from public funds most or all of the amount they pay in statutory maternity pay.

The UK government also indicated that it would resist the adoption of the Parliament’s amendments when the draft directive was considered by the EU Council. In the event, at a meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO)on 6–7 December 2010, a ‘very large majority’ of EU governments reportedly opposed the Parliament’s amendments, and considered that they ‘did not constitute an appropriate basis for negotiations’ (EU1012021I). Under EU legislative procedures, the Council must now reach a ‘common position’ which will return to the Parliament for a second reading.

Social partner views

There was hostile employer reaction to the European Parliament vote, particularly from groups representing small businesses. David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), commented:

This directive should be about setting minimum health and safety standards for pregnant workers, not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems. The idea that employers, or our public finances, can bear an additional GBP 2.5 billion (€2.9 billion) per year is deeply out of touch with reality.

Tina Sommer of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said:

The FSB fears that these changes will result in an increase in the cost of maternity and paternity leave and will mean these costs have to be shared between government and the employer, at a cost of more than GBP 7,000 [€8,200] to a small business – placing a further strain on cash-flow . . . This well-intentioned EU employment law will not help small firms take on new members of staff – vital at this time of high unemployment.

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) also criticised the European Parliament’s decision, claiming that it could provide a further obstacle to business growth following the recession. The FPB said:

The timing of the vote to extend maternity leave is unhelpful as it sends out the wrong message to business owners and potential entrepreneurs. Smaller businesses should not be saddled with more red tape from Europe.

However, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) wrote to MEPs urging them to support the proposed amendments. Following the Council’s refusal to back the Parliament’s amendments, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber told Personnel Today that unions were:

disappointed that plans to extend maternity leave in the EU to 20 weeks have been rejected, but hopefully the [Commission’s] 18-week proposal will be approved. The UK has one of the shortest periods of fully paid leave in the EU, so extending it to 18 weeks will benefit the millions of families who struggle financially when having a baby.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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