Baby benefits boosted, but it's still not enough

Britain's maternity support was the worst in Europe, says Barbara Oaff. The changes starting on 6 April mean more money and more time off, but Italy, Denmark, Norway, Hungary and Poland do better for mothers

Britain has always lagged behind the rest of Europe in maternity benefits, but the Government is making sweeping improvements to the UK system, starting next month. But will life improve for new mothers and fathers? Some experts fear they may still be worse off than most of their European counterparts.

Britain has always lagged behind the rest of Europe in maternity benefits, but the Government is making sweeping improvements to the UK system, starting next month. But will life improve for new mothers and fathers? Some experts fear they may still be worse off than most of their European counterparts.

From 6 April, maternity leave will be extended from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. Maternity pay will be provided through this at £100 a week, up from £75. When the new benefits take effect, the UK will no longer be at the bottom of the European Union maternity benefits league table. It will have moved to fourth-bottom.

Research highlights the disparities. Mercer, an international human resources consultancy, has recently finished examining worldwide variations in maternity benefits. It has calculated that in Britain, a woman earning £15,000 is paid £3,558 for six months' maternity leave. In Italy, that would be £6,058, in Denmark £6,756 and in Norway £7,500. Even in Hungary and Poland mothers get at least £1,000 more than their British counterparts.

"It is pathetic," says Joanna Wade, half of Palmer Wade, a London-based solicitor specialising in mothers' sex discrimination cases. "We are one of the richest countries in Europe, yet our maternity benefits will continue to be among the stingiest." Irene Peilia, deputy chief executive of the lobby group Parents At Work, is equally unimpressed. She says: "The changes don't go far enough in terms of affordability or equality."

The Maternity Alliance agrees. Its head of policy, Helen Terry, says: "It's great that women can have more maternity leave, but unless they get a higher rate of maternity pay they simply cannot afford to take the extra time off work."

New mother Joanna Baxby has a slightly different point of view. Ms Baxby, a primary-school teacher in Hayfield, Derbyshire, had her first child this year and says: "I do appreciate my maternity benefits. But having a baby is a personal choice and I don't actually expect the state to entirely fund that choice." In any case, when the new tax year begins on 6 April, pregnant women and their partners will be entitled to additional rights. But figuring out who gets what is easier said than done. The new benefits system is as confusing as the old one, if not more so.

Statutory maternity pay (SMP)

Most working women will be entitled to 26 weeks' pay. The first six weeks will be at 90 per cent of their average salary. The following 20 weeks will be at a flat rate of £100 a week, unless the woman earns less than this, in which case she will receive 90 per cent of her usual wage.

To qualify for SMP the woman must not have been pregnant when she started with her present employer. And she must not have been paid at least £77 a week before tax in the eight weeks leading to her qualifying week (this is the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth).

Maternity allowance (MA)

This is designed for women who do not qualify for statutory maternity pay. It is a safety net for those self-employed, unemployed, on low earnings or for people who changed employers while pregnant. Maternity Allowance, like SMP, is available for 26 weeks: the standard payment in this case is £100 a week. Unless, again, the woman earned less than this, when she will receive 90 per cent of her usual salary.

Ordinary maternity Leave (OML)

All women workers can take up to 26 weeks' leave. And they have the right to return to exactly the same job under the exactly the same terms and conditions. This is regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time, whether they have worked for a long time or a short time, whether they were pregnant or not when they joined the company. But the earliest OML can start is the 11th week before the expected week of childbirth.

Additional maternity leave (AML)

Some women workers can take up to an extra 26 weeks' leave, bringing the total amount off work to a year. The Government provides no payment during AML. A few generous employers may.

AML must follow on from OML. There can be no break. The woman has to have been with the employer for the 26 weeks leading to her qualifying week. This means if you were pregnant when you took your job, you will not qualify for AML.

Additional rights

Women workers have other rights. They are allowed to take time off, without loss of pay, to attend antenatal checks. They cannot be dismissed, demoted or made redundant for any reason connected with their pregnancy. They cannot be treated in any other way deemed unfair.

They and their male partners have the right to ask for more flexible working conditions, providing they have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks before their request. Employers have a duty to take this seriously and can reject it only if there are compelling business reasons.

Paternity rights

Until now, men have had to rely on unpaid parental leave or time off for dependants if they could not get contractual paternity leave from their employer. From 6 April, most fathers and partners (including same-sex partners) can have two weeks' statutory paternity pay after the birth, at the standard rate of £100 per week.

A man must have worked for his employer for 26 weeks by the 15th week before the baby is due and earn more than £77 gross a week.

Adoptive parents rights

From 6 April, adoptive parents will no longer have to take unpaid leave to have time off after an adoption. An adoptive parent will be entitled to 26 weeks' paid leave at £100 a week, or 90 per cent of their average earnings if this is less than £100 a week.

They can also take 26 weeks' more unpaid leave. But they must have worked for their employer for 26 weeks by the week they are notified of a match with a child and they must earn more than £77 gross a week.

The Maternity Alliance has a series of fact sheets. Send an SAE and £1 for each one required to Publications Department, Maternity Alliance, 2-6 Northburgh Street, London, EC1V 0AY. Or visit www.maternityalliance.org.uk or phone 020 7490 7638.

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