Birth of a better deal

Improved maternity rights come into operation in two weeks' time.

Cherie Blair may be wealthy enough not to have to worry about her maternity rights, but for many expectant mothers maternity provisions are a headache. Rules are complex and often hard to understand.

However, help is at hand: the 1999 Employment Relations Act is due to come into force in just over two weeks' time.

The new "family friendly" directives are aimed at simplifying maternity rights and will see an increase in the standard maternity leave entitlement from 14 to 18 weeks, irrespective of length of service or hours worked. There may be additional maternity provisions available, but they vary from company to company.

The current regulations allow a woman who has worked at the same company for more than two years to have up to 29 weeks' maternity leave after the birth of her child. This qualifying period will be reduced to one year as a result of the Act.

The new directive also says that a contract of employment continues until either the employee is dismissed or resigns, and that a woman does not have to notify her employer of her resignation until the day she is due to return from maternity leave. This will help in claims of unfair dismissal and is further supported in the Employment Relations Act by the provision for a new right not to be victimised on the grounds of pregnancy, childbirth or maternity.

If a woman is dismissed because she is pregnant or for a reason related to her pregnancy, she has an automatic claim for unfair dismissal - and potentially for sex discrimination - before an employment tribunal. This right is available to all women, regardless of the length of time in the job.

Changes to the level of maternity pay is not included in the reforms - something that will not go down well with low-paid working women.

Statutory maternity pay (SMP) is available to those who have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks and who work until the fifteenth week of pregnancy.

SMP entitles you to 90 per cent of your earnings for the first six weeks and the basic rate of pounds 59.95 per week for the remaining 12 weeks.

In addition to SMP, many women negotiate a better deal from their bosses. Enhanced benefits are often offered by employers. These include full salary for part or all of the maternity leave period, and some companies even offer bonuses as an incentive for women to return to work.

For those who do not qualify for SMP, the maternity allow-ance is fixed at pounds 59.95 per week. However, this is not available to everyone, and women whose weekly wage is less than pounds 66 are not entitled to any maternity pay.

Campaigners have been fighting for years to have maternity, and paternity rights reformed in order to bring Britain more into line with its European partners. At last things are moving in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.

The Employment Relations Act incorporates the EU directive of parental leave whereby both mothers and fathers will be able to take up to 13 weeks of unpaid leave during the years up until their child's fifth birthday. In effect, this enables fathers to take paternity leave at long last. Tony Blair has already announced that he plans to take advantage of his rights as an expectant father and take time off from his hectic schedule after his fourth child is born. But the battle continues for men to get their rights increased so that they receive pay during their absence from work. It is not unusual for employers to allow fathers paid days off for the birth of their child. However, com-panies are not likely to be as generous when it comes to the weeks off that fathers will be able to take as a result of the new legislation.

Provisions are also in-cluded that allow parents to take a "reasonable" amount of time off during working hours in order to deal with situations such as looking after a sick child. If this arises and time off is refused, an employee will be totally within his or her rights to present a claim to an employment tribunal.

n Ian Hunter is a partner and employment law specialist with City law firm Bird & Bird. He is also author of the `Which? Guide to Employment'.

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