Price of a pregnant pause

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The Independent Online
"THESE statutory provisions are of inordinate complexity, exceeding the worse excesses of the taxing statute; we find that especially regrettable, bearing in mind that they are regulating the everyday rights of ordinary employers and employees." M r Justice Browne-Wilkinson was referring in 1982 to the workings of maternity legislation. Yet this year a further tier of such legislation was ushered in under the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act (Turera).

The new provisions have not been warmly received. The Government's reluctance to overhaul this legislative hotch-potch guarantees confusion for employers and worry for employees.

The maternity provisions contained in Turera were dictated by the requirements of a European Commission directive relating to pregnant workers. Under this new legislation, all women, irrespective of their length of service or hours of work, have the right to 14 weeks' "maternity leave". At the end of the leave period, they have the right to return to the same job. Under previous legislation, women with more than two years' service by the 11th week before the birth still have the right to return to work within 29 weeks of the date of birth.

During the 14-week maternity leave period, all employees have the right to benefits other than remuneration, such as the use of a car, medical cover or pension contributions. Women with more than two years' service and the right to the 29-week absence have no right to receive these benefits after 14-weeks.

According to Jenny Earle at the Maternity Alliance, the Government has squandered an opportunity to sort out this legislative mess. She comments: "The present maternity provisions are not sufficiently comprehensive. There are serious gaps in their ambit.The rules are a nightmare for both employers and employees to find their way around. They must consider the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, statutory maternity regulations and if that were not enough, relevant European law as well. We regularly receive calls both from employers and employees who do not know how to react."

Ms Earle points out that the present maternity legislation fails to help the most vulnerable - low paid working women. Under the present legislation, women who earn less than £57 per week receive no statutory maternity pay. The Equal Opportunities Commission believes that 20 per cent of working women lose entitlement because of this rule.

The view of the Maternity Alliance is that the failure to provide statutory maternity pay breaches the European Directive relating to pregnant workers. The organisation believes the directive requires all women to be paid an "adequate allowance", which should be not less than £52.50 a week for the 14-week leave period. It maintains that the failure of domestic legislation to provide adequate allowance for pregnant women may breach the terms of the directive.

The maternity provisions have also been criticised at the other end of the spectrum. A recent survey of female members of the Institute of Directors revealed that over 57 per cent believed women's job prospects had been hindered by the extended rights ofmaternity leave and pay.

Ann Robinson, at the IOD's Policy Unit, acknowledges that women still face considerable obstacles to career progression.

She comments: "These obstacles arise principally from two sources - attitudes to women in the workplace and the practical difficulties of combining a career with having a family. While the situation may be improving, there is still a long way to go before women achieve a significant presence in the top jobs in industry and commerce."

Many would argue that an overhaul of all maternity legislation would be a substantial contribution to redressing this.