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'. www.twobirds.com

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Life and Style
food + drink
Voices
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959
voicesWard committed no crime, and the truth is still being covered up, writes Geoffrey Robertson QC
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Mark Wright
tvStrictly goes head-to-head with Apprentice
Sport
footballPremier League preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's clashes
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas