The recent vote by a committee of the European Parliament in favour of women becoming entitled to a minimum of 20 weeks’ fully paid maternity leave has been causing concern in the United Kingdom. The Government had anticipated having to make few significant amendments to UK law as a result of the European Commission’s original proposals to amend the EC Pregnant Workers Directive (92/85/EEC).
The Commission’s proposed amendments, published in October 2008, included an increase of the minimum period of leave from 14 to 18 weeks; an extension of the compulsory period of leave after childbirth from 2 to 6 weeks; and a proposal that women should receive full pay during maternity leave – although member states would be able to specify a ceiling at least equal to sick pay.
The current UK maternity regime is already more generous than most of the minimum standards proposed by the Commission. The Government launched a consultation (PDF) on the proposals in March 2009 and its response is expected this spring. It assumed that that the proposal concerning full pay would have no impact in the UK, where the current rate of statutory maternity pay is more generous than sick pay.
The Commission’s proposals are subject to negotiation with member states and the co-decision process with the European Council and the European Parliament. At the first reading by the Parliament, the EU Women’s Rights Committee voted in favour of amendments to the proposals. Specifically, these included an extension of paid maternity leave to 20 weeks and a proposal that full pay during maternity leave should mean 100% of a woman’s last monthly or average salary.
These new proposals have led to outcry in the UK, with claims that the requirement for 20 weeks’ full pay will cost the UK up to £2 billion a year. However, there is still some way to go before these proposals become law. The Council still has to agree the proposed amendments – with any further changes having to go back through Parliament – and the member states will be lobbying to put their business cases.
In the March 2009 consultation paper, the Government indicated that any regulations required to implement the amended Directive in the UK would not be implemented until at least 2011. If the additional proposals from the European Parliament lead to protracted negotiations at European level, this timescale is likely to be put back even further.