New deal born for pregnant workers: More working women are now eligible for higher maternity pay and longer leave

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NEXT weekend is the first date that pregnant women qualifying under the new rules on maternity pay can begin their 14 weeks' leave.

The change, introduced by the Government earlier this year to comply with the European Union's Pregnant Workers Directive, raises the maternity pay due and extends entitlement.

The new rules are expected to affect about 300,000 women a year and come into effect for women whose babies are due on or after 16 October. Women eligible for up to 40 weeks' leave under the old rules are not affected.

Although women qualifying under the new rules are entitled to start their leave next weekend, Jenny Earle, legal officer at the Maternity Alliance pressure group, says they would probably be wise not to.

'If they leave as soon as they are allowed to, and the baby is late, this will give them no time away from work after the baby is born, although if the baby is very late, leave can be extended until the date of the birth.

'A lot of people think there is provision for compulsory leave after the baby is born, but this is not the case.'

Women should beware one of the clauses put into the regulations to placate employers.

A woman can normally decide when her maternity leave begins. But if she plans to delay it for as long as possible she should be aware of a caveat - if she takes even half a day off due to pregnancy-related sickness in the last six weeks before the baby is due, her employer has the right to declare her maternity leave has begun and start the 14-week countdown.

Ms Earle says: 'The period allowed for maternity leave is so short for caring for the needs of a newborn baby that employers were worried that women might attempt to play the system and take time off sick in the last few weeks of their pregnancy to extend the time they could take afterwards.'

Women with babies due on or after 16 October will now get 90 per cent of their gross average pay for the first six weeks, then a flat rate of pounds 52.50 per week for the remaining eight weeks.

To qualify under the new rules, a woman must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks - since 2 January to qualify for leave from next weekend - and her average earnings must have been at least equal to the lower earnings limit for National Insurance (at present pounds 57 a week) for at least eight weeks, measured from 15 weeks before her expected date of confinement. Workers on very low pay still do not qualify, but there is now no lower limit on the number of hours worked per week. All maternity pay is taxable.

Before, women had to work for the same employer for at least two years if full-time - and for five years if working less than 15 hours a week. Those working fewer than eight hours a week had no entitlement. Women who fulfil these criteria can still take up to 40 weeks' leave - 11 weeks before the birth and 29 weeks after it - with the first six weeks on 90 per cent pay and a further 12 weeks on statutory maternity pay of pounds 52.50.

The qualifying period of employment must be completed by the end of the 12th week before the baby is due.

Under the new rules, women can work later in pregnancy and not lose maternity pay. Previously, women had to give up work six weeks before their babies were due to obtain full maternity pay entitlement, as only 12 weeks' pay was allowed after the birth. They can now work as long as they like up to the birth, and entitlement up to the full 18 weeks can be carried forward.

Ms Earle says: 'There is a conflict between the two systems. Statutory maternity pay is payable for 18 weeks, but women qualifying under the new rules who were previously excluded from the system are allowed only 14 weeks' leave, so they lose four weeks' entitlement, because you can't work and receive maternity pay at the same time.'

Women who are not eligible for maternity pay - because they are self-employed, gave up work or changed jobs during their pregnancy - but who have worked or paid full-rate National Insurance contributions for at least 26 of the 66 weeks before the week in which the baby is expected, may claim Maternity Allowance from the Department of Social Security. This is paid for up to 18 weeks any time from 11 weeks before the expected date of childbirth, and provides pounds 44.55 a week to the self-employed and those who have recently become unemployed.

A higher rate of pounds 52.50 is payable to women who are in employment in the 15th week before the baby is due, to bring them into line with women receiving maternity pay.

Maternity Alliance: 071-837 1265

(Photograph omitted)