Leave us holding the baby a bit longer: New legislation will severely limit the time a new mother can spend at home before returning to work, protests Angela Phillips

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Indy Lifestyle Online
TWO CHEERS are in order for the biggest change in employment law for women in 20 years. The good news is that a Bill due to pass its final stages in the last week of May will extend the right to maternity leave to every woman in Britain. Up until now only those women who have worked for two years in the same job have had a statutory right to maternity leave. They have been allowed to take up to 11 weeks off before the birth and up to 29 weeks after. Few women take the whole period but over 80 per cent will have given up work by the sixth week before the birth because they are too tired to keep going. Most then take off four to five months afterwards.

Now women with less than two years' service in a job will also be allowed to leave work up to 11 weeks before the birth. The bad news is that they will be allowed only 14 weeks' leave in total. Women who want to keep their jobs will find that they are forced to return to work when their babies are very young. If they stop work six weeks before delivery, they will have only eight weeks at home afterwards. And if the baby arrives late, they could have to face a return to work when the baby is six weeks old or even less.

Already, under existing laws, there are women who are rushing back to work because maternity pay (six weeks on full pay followed by only pounds 48 for another 12) is so low. Helen Davies, an office manager for Littlewoods, took three weeks off before the birth of her second child and then returned to work eight weeks later. She could have taken longer leave, unpaid, but she and her husband could not afford to manage without her pounds 15,000 salary, the larger chunk of the family earnings. Her husband, Ibim, earns pounds 10,000 as a clerk and a little extra when he can. His earnings would not cover the mortgage and the pounds 64 a week for a nursery place for their eldest child.

Helen would like to have had longer at home. She found that 'physically it is absolutely terrible going back to work so early. I couldn't do my job properly because I couldn't concentrate. Emotionally you are just up in the air. I felt I shouldn't really be there.' Fortunately a relation was living with them and Helen felt able to leave in the mornings without fearing for her baby's safety.

She says: 'If we hadn't got anyone in the house I could never have gone back so early and been happy about it. Registered childminders won't even take a baby under six months. We would have had to leave her with someone who was unregistered.'

Janet Miller is a GP in an inner-London practice. She has noticed a steady increase in the numbers of women going back to work early because they cannot afford to take more time. It is not a trend she welcomes. 'Too many women are going back into a situation which is essentially hostile. They have been through a major emotional experience and there is no allowance made for them. Memory and concentration span take a long time to get back to normal, and it can take time for the baby's sleep to settle. It is terribly destructive on every level. These mothers carry a tremendous level of guilt, rushing to the doctor at the slightest sign that their baby is unwell.'

Dr Miller speaks from personal as well as professional experience. 'I really feel for these women because I know what it's like. I went back at eight weeks with my first child because I felt guilty about leaving my patients. It was terribly destructive for both me and my baby. With my second baby I took another month.'

The new law will do little to help Dr Miller's patients. It will, in fact, spread the stress to a new group of women who, in the past, might have stopped work and then looked for another job later. The effects of the recession and the high cost of housing mean that many of them will find themselves with a new dilemma. If they go back to work so soon, they will feel guilty about leaving a baby too tiny even to hold its head up. If they need more time, they will lose a job that might be hard to replace.

Organisations representing mothers and children have been asking the Government to reconsider and increase the leave entitlement at least to 18 weeks (which would allow three to four months after the birth) so that women will be able to make an unpressured decision on whether to return to work.

Unfortunately ministers seem unable to understand the difference that one month can make, and have so far been reluctant to listen to advice from people who do. The government showed no sign of wanting to bring in maternity leave as an automatic right and opposed the idea until the last moment in the European Community. Now that it is forced to comply with European law, it seems determined to stick to the absolute minimum on the grounds that a longer period of leave would be a burden on employers.

This is not a position backed by evidence or logic. It serves no one's interests to legislate for a period of leave that is so utterly inadequate that it will merely result in disgruntled employers being forced to take back employees who are really too weak and weary to be there at all, and who will have been forced to leave their babies in circumstances that are far from ideal.

Employers' organisations have always been against improving maternity leave, but some employers are finally realising that if across-the- board maternity leave is coming, it would be better if the minimum leave were long enough to be useful, and simple to implement in line with the current maternity pay provisions.

Phil Ward, personnel director of Northern Foods, has written to the Secretary of State for Employment, Gillian Shephard, supporting a proposal 'to harmonise entitlements for leave and pay at 18 weeks rather than introduce a 14-week leave period'.

Ro Pengally, of the Federation of Small Businesses, had this to say in a letter to the Maternity Alliance: 'I fully support the idea of increasing maternity leave from 14 weeks to 18 weeks. The business decision needs to be made either to fill the position temporarily or make other arrangements: these can stay in place for a little longer without problem.'

The Maternity Alliance, a national voluntary organisation that campaigns for improved rights and facilities for mothers and babies, has been lobbying for just such an amendment to the Employment Bill. It points out that unamended the Bill will not only be bad for mothers and employers: 'Recent research has shown that babies who were breastfed for 13 weeks were three times less likely to contract gastrointestinal illness than bottle fed babies. Breastfeeding also protects against respiratory infection, childhood cancer, and cot death.'

It is a point that has been put forcefully by the Government's Under Secretary of State for Health, Baroness Cumberlege, who stated: 'We are quite clear and unequivocal that mother's milk is best for babies.'

Sadly those women forced to return to work early will usually be forced to abandon breastfeeding. It will be a strange outcome for a Bill intended to improve the health of mothers and babies. Even now it is not too late to ask our MPs to support the 18-week amendment.