MEPs urged to vote down new maternity leave rules

A leading business group has called on the European Parliament to reject plans to extend maternity leave on full pay to 20 weeks.

The proposed amendment to the Pregnant Workers Directive will shortly go before MEPs.

But the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has described the changes as "unaffordable", costing UK business an additional £2.5 billion annually.

The initial plan, put forward by the European Commission, was to extend fully paid maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, but with member states able to specify a ceiling which must be equal to statutory sick pay.

However, the Women's Rights Committee of the European Parliament subsequently agreed amendments to the Commission proposal whereby maternity leave would be extended to 20 weeks on full pay.

At the moment, new mothers in the UK are entitled to a year off work. The first six weeks can be taken on 90 per cent of pay, with a following 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay of £124.88 a week, which is 55 per cent higher than sick pay. The remainder is unpaid.

Kieran O'Keeffe, head of European affairs at the BCC, said: "MEPs must think carefully about the implications of this directive for already overburdened companies and national social security systems.

"The figures provided in the Parliament's own impact assessment show that these proposals are completely unaffordable, particularly at a time when governments across the EU are dealing with budget deficits and the aftermath of recession.

"The Commission's original proposal to extend maternity leave to 18 weeks, but with individual member states continuing to decide the level of pay, is a better, more affordable option."