A pregnant pause in the income stream

The joys of motherhood bring with them heavy financial problems, and the laws are complex. Ian Hunter finds ways to ease the pain
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The Independent Online
Hundreds of thousands of women will experience both the pleasure and the pain of childbirth in the coming year. For many, any discomfort may not only be physical, but also financial.

Unless they have a firm grasp of what their rights are and the money available to them in pregnancy and in the months thereafter, the joys of motherhood may be marred by the difficulties involved in making ends meet.

Not that having a child is ever a cheap proposition. Research, usually by companies aiming to sell all sorts of savings products to young couples, show that bringing up a child can cost up to pounds 100,000 by the time the child is 18.

Childbirth is expensive, as expectant mother Marian Hubbell knows. Ms Hubbell, an employee development adviser, says: "The initial outlay on clothes and other items is significant, particularly when you know your income is about to take a large drop."

There is not much, apart from being lucky enough to remain in work, that most couples can do to meet the financial demands of parenthood.

But - although most of us are not fully aware of them - there are some legal rights that can ensure small amounts of cash at a time when it is most likely to be needed.

For example, pregnant part-time workers achieved a small victory last year when the Government brought the Employment Protection (Part-time Employees) Regulations into force.

These regulations extended the same statutory maternity rights to part- time workers as those enjoyed by their full-time colleagues.

The legislation governing maternity rights is complicated, and a further tier was welded on last year under the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act (Turera).

In response to these complexities, the Department of Employment has produced a free booklet, Maternity Rights,which comprehensively sets out pregnant workers' rights.

Statutory rights are not generous. Female employees who comply with a series of rules have two basic rights: an entitlement to maternity pay and the right to return to the same job at the end of the maternity leave period.

Since the passage of Turera, all women, irrespective of their length of service or hours of work, have a right to 14 weeks' "maternity leave".

Women who have worked for the same employer for more than two years have a right to a longer "maternity absence". This entitles the employee to return to the same or similar employment up to 29 weeks after the child's birth.

During the 14-week maternity leave period, all employees have the right to benefits "other than remuneration". This generally means the use of a company car, medical cover and pension contributions - but not pay. Women who qualify for the longer maternity absence do not have a right to these benefits beyond the initial 14-week period.

A recent judgment by the European Court is less than helpful to pregnant mothers. The court was asked to consider whether European laws governing sex discrimination required employers to provide full pay to female staff during maternity leave.

The court decided that employers who failed to give full pay were not in breach of European equal-treatment provisions.

There is nothing to prevent employees or their unions negotiating additional benefits. After one year's service, Ms Hubbell's employers provide employees with eight weeks at full pay, 10 weeks at half pay and a further 34 weeks unpaid leave. These benefits are conditional on the employee returning to work for at least three months at the end of the leave period.

Many other large workplaces, both in the private and public sectors, will have enhanced maternity benefits.

This entitlement compares favourably with the statutory minimum. Flat- rate statutory maternity pay (SMP) is currently fixed at pounds 52.50 per week. To qualify expectant mothers must have worked for at least 26 weeks and must continue to work until at least 15 weeks before the child is due. SMP is payable for 18 weeks.

Those who have worked continuously for more than two years prior to the week when the child is due are entitled to an enhanced payment - 90 per cent of their earnings for the first six weeks and SMP at the basic rate for the remaining 12 weeks. There is little help for low-paid working women. Those who earn less than pounds 58 per week (the lower limit for national insurance contributions) are not entitled to SMP.

It is unlawful for employers to discriminate against pregnant employees. If an employee is dismissed for a pregnancy-related reason she will have an automatic claim for unfair dismissal before an industrial tribunal, regardless of her length of service.

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