Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

UK warns over EU maternity plan

Mother and child
Mothers and fathers have the right to paid leave

The UK will not accept any EU proposal for women to have the right to be paid their full salary while on maternity leave, minister Pat McFadden has said.

The EU wants to increase the minimum period of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks and recommends it is on full pay.

The UK is backing a proposed opt-out to allow states to set a pay ceiling at sick pay levels, saying full pay would put "substantial costs" on businesses.

UK mothers get 90% of salary for six weeks, then 117 a week for 33 weeks.

'Proper balance'

The government had made the issue of work-life balance a priority during the past decade, Mr McFadden told a House of Lords Committee on EU Social Affairs, and had made "enormous strides" in helping new mothers and fathers.

Asked about the implications of the proposed EU directive on the UK, Mr McFadden said he was seeking clarification of some points to ensure the "proper balance" was maintained between the needs of workers and employers.

He also said the public would be consulted on the EU's plans and ministers were particularly keen to hear from industries with large female workforces including retail and hairdressing.

Enormous strides have been made in the UK in the last decade
Pat McFadden

In 2007, the UK moved to extend paid maternity leave from 26 to 39 weeks.

New mothers currently receive 90% of their average salary for the first six weeks and then a maximum of 117.18 a week for the rest of the period.

As the UK already offers longer leave than the EU now proposing, Mr McFadden said he would be broadly happy with the directive "as it stands" as it would not significantly increase costs for firms.

However, he said any suggestion states would be forced to pay new mothers 100% of salary would set off a "red warning light".

"We want legal clarity that we are not being directed to pay full pay," he told peers.

Flexibility

Mr McFadden said a new directive would have "value" if it agreed "minimum baselines" that member states had to meet in regard to maternity pay and parental leave.

But he warned against trying to impose "prescriptive" common standards that took no account of the "flexibility and variety" of current systems in different countries.

"Enormous strides have been made in the UK in the last decade," Mr McFadden said, stressing that new mothers were 3,000 better off - before tax credits - due to government assistance.

"If you look at the whole package around support for mothers in early days, it is an enormously different and improved situation compared to a decade ago," he said.

Brussels is concerned that women who have children are still losing out in terms of future job prospects and pay.

It wants women across the EU to have the right to return to the same job, or an equivalent position, after taking leave and to be able to request flexible working upon their return.

Its proposals are currently being discussed by MEPs and by employment ministers and could be agreed this year.

Member states would then have two years to implement them.

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