Restriction of maternity benefits to be lifted

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PREGNANT women in Britain will benefit from improved rights after an agreement struck in Brussels yesterday.

The new deal will come into force in just over a year's time and will mean that workers will qualify for maternity benefits as soon as they get a job, rather than having to wait two years.

Women will have a right to receive 14 weeks' wages at a minimum of statutory sick pay as soon as they start work.

In Britain at present, after two years' continuous employment, women are entitled to six weeks on 90 per cent of full pay and a further 12 weeks on maternity benefit of pounds 46.30 a week.

The agreement was struck after Italian ministers dropped their argument that pregnant women should enjoy a better deal.

If the Italians had maintained their objections until next Monday, the proposed directive would have 'fallen' under EC rules. Whitehall officials said it would have taken up to three years to get back to the stage where a directive would have been passed which was binding on all European countries.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, last night welcomed the fact that the Italians had agreed a compromise offered in a meeting of social affairs ministers in Chepstow, Gwent, on Tuesday. Mrs Shephard offered to include a clause which made it clear the directive was not 'equating pregnancy with sickness' and conceded that the rule would be reviewed in five years.

The accord will not be welcomed by Joanna Foster, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and leader of the EC's advisory committee on equal opportunities, who has called for maternity pay at 80 per cent of a woman's earnings.