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Does the UK really have the best maternity rights in the world?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 March 2023

Curly haired baby being bottle-fed in woman's arms.

Credit: Keira Burton via Pexels.

Margaret O’Brien

In a recent BBC Radio 4 debate, the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg MP claimed that the UK has the best maternity rights in the world. The programme was aired on the 31st January, to debate the third anniversary of Brexit. In it, he also assured the audience that rescinding EU employment regulations would have no detrimental impact on British working parents – and that in comparison to our European neighbours we in the UK already benefit from exceptional maternity rights, with laws originating from the UK itself.

In fact, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s claim of world-leading maternity rights for Britain is an odd statement and contrary to international evidence.

Audits comparing maternity and other leaves show that many countries are doing so much more when people become mothers and fathers. These countries give parents better pay during statutory maternity and paternity leave after a child’s birth and individual entitlements to paid parental leave during the first year of a child’s life, as well as investing in high quality, affordable early childhood education and care (ECEC).

Where the UK is a world leader is that it has created one of the longest periods of statutory maternity leave, of 52 weeks – but this comes with frugal and miserly payment. Only six of these 52 weeks attract well-paid income replacement, at 90% of previous salary; the next 33 weeks are paid but at a low flat-rate (£156.66 per week), while the remaining 13 weeks are unpaid.

Only Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bulgaria have similarly lengthy statutory maternity leave periods, but all with more generous payment. Generally, the continental European approach has been to opt for a short but well or fully paid maternity leave (14-18 weeks), followed by paid parental Leave (three to four months), plus ECEC investment in line with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and OECD recommendations.

A colleague of Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Sir William Cash MP, also recently misspoke on the issue of Britain’s maternity rights, suggesting that “the UK actually has 52 weeks of maternity pay”, and paid at a higher level than the EU. This was corrected by Full Fact the next day.

Behind these statements both MPs may indeed think that there is a justifiable case for increasing well-paid maternity leave, because they legislated for just this in 2021, fast-tracking The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act, prompted by the then Attorney-General’s, Suella Braverman’s, pregnancy. This new law enabled her and other senior government ministers to take maternity leave, previously disallowed because of their self-employed status (an eligibility problem for all UK parents), and to be paid at full income replacement for six months. This innovation is to be welcomed, but why wasn’t it applied to all mothers?

In terms of the history of maternity rights, it’s fair to say that the UK was a latecomer to implementing statutory maternity leave. British mothers were given this entitlement through the Employment Protection Act of 1975, some years after many European countries (e.g., France, 1946; German Federal Republic, 1952; Switzerland, 1963).

As attitudes to working mothers changed during the 1980s, the UK was influential, within the EU, in ensuring all member states implemented a minimum of 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave, through The Pregnant Workers Directive in 1992. The UK’s early introduction of entitlements for work breaks to attend antenatal screening and a right to request flexible working were also progressive measures.

UK governments were initially less enthusiastic about progressing the 1996 EU Parental Leave Directive, a measure to support sharing the care of young children between mothers and fathers after the post-birth period. The Conservative government of the day negotiated an opt-out, but it was implemented by the New Labour government in 1999, albeit as an unpaid and highly inflexible provision (to be taken in blocks of one month per year). In 2003 New Labour also introduced paternity leave. At the time, dedicated birth leave for employed fathers was not part of an EU minimum work-family reconciliation standard; even while in the EU, then, innovation in line with national preference, freedom and sovereignty, was possible for Britain. From there, rather than building on the UK’s existing parental leave law, the subsequent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government legislated for a parallel Shared Parental Leave (SPL) scheme, enabling mothers to transfer maternity leave to fathers. Ultimately, this has also had poor take up. Meanwhile, the EU moved forward with its Work-life Balance Directive 2019.

What about the future? How can the UK move towards better post-birth and parenting leave support for mothers, fathers, and carers? An intelligent handling of the current Retained EU Law Bill will be an important first step.

This work should be thoughtful, non-partisan and not rushed. In particular, a balanced approach could give space to reviewing the SPL scheme, which all political parties, as well as parents, now think is too technically complex and not fit for purpose. Reading unpublished reports from the government’s evaluation of SPL, on hold for many years, and other international evidence would help the process.

The SPL scheme’s problem is that “the sharing” requires mothers to hand over their rather meagre maternity leave benefits to fathers/partners. By contrast, the EU’s Work-life Balance Directive 2019 offers paid individual entitlements to both parents, independent of each other, reducing the need for complex SPL trade-off calculations, and allows greater flexibility in how the leave is used. The UK is in a strong position to adopt this design, as it already has the primary legal architecture for parents to take individual non-transferable entitlements through the aforementioned 1999 parental leave legislation, increased from three to four months in 2013.

To ensure British working parents at least keep up with their continental European peers, UK’s parental leave legislation should be retained and improved to become a paid provision as per the new EU directive. In addition, parents should be given greater flexibility than offered by the current one block month a year model. In this way, the UK could promote proper sharing of the care of young children without dipping into British women’s already meagre maternity rights.

Margaret O’Brien is vice-chair, and, with Alison Koslowski, the UK co-lead on the Europe-wide project Parental Leave Policies and Social Sustainability, part of wider efforts to advance and disseminate research and knowledge about the significance of paid parental leave for the social sustainability of societies. The project is chaired by Thordis Reimer of the University of Hamburg. 

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