Maternity Pay in the UK – Nearly Worst in Europe

maternity pay family

Maternity pay recently hit the news when the TUC reported that maternity pay entitlement for mothers in the UK is among the worst in Europe.  Only women in Ireland and Slovakia fare worse in the “decently paid” rankings.  The TUC define “decently paid” as maternity pay of at least two-thirds of a woman’s salary.

What is the current maternity pay entitlement?

Statutory maternity pay (SMP) is available for up to 39 weeks.  The first 6 weeks are paid at 90% of the mother’s average weekly earnings.  The following 32 weeks are paid at £139.58 or 90%, whichever is lower.

You are entitled to receive SMP if you:

  • supply proof that you’re pregnant (a letter from doctor or midwife or MATB1 certificate)
  • give your employer notice (in writing at least 28 days before you want to take maternity leave)
  • earn at least £112 a week
  • have worked for your employer continuously for at least 26 weeks up until the ‘qualifying week’ (15 weeks before the week you’re due).

If you take the full year of maternity leave, that means that the last 13 weeks are potentially without pay, unless your employer offers more than the statutory pay.

Employers can usually claim back 92% of the SMP they pay you (or 103% if the business qualifies for Small Employers’ Relief).  And, of course, any employer can choose to offer additional maternity pay as a benefit.  Any benefits over and above SMP should be set out in your employer’s maternity policy and will form part of your contract of employment.

What do other European countries offer?

The UK offers a fairly generous length of maternity leave (52 weeks), compared to other countries but the rate of statutory pay falls away sharply after 6 weeks for many women.

The top 5 European countries for maternity pay (as per the TUC report) are:

  1. Croatia – 6 months of “decently paid” maternity leave
  2. Hungary – 5.6 months
  3. Czech Republic – 5.1 months
  4. Poland – 4.6 months.

The UK comes in at position 22 at 1.4 months.

What about Shared Paternal Leave?

A number of European countries now offer some form of shared leave for parents during the first year of a baby’s life in the form of parental leave.  Shared parental leave has had a low take-up in the UK but was only introduced as a statutory right in December 2014.

In a nutshell, shared parental leave (SPL) allows (qualifying) parents to share time off work once their baby is born.  Statutory maternity pay can also be shared (as shared parental leave pay).  Of course, there are various rules about who can take SPL, how statutory parental leave pay is awarded etc.  But it’s a step towards a more flexible parenting model.  Countries such as Iceland, Norway and Sweden have gone further and don’t even recognise maternity leave as a separate form of  leave: it’s part and parcel of parenting leave.

What do TUC propose?

The TUC are campaigning for a number of measures, including:

  1. SMP (and Maternity Allowance) to be increased to the same as the national minimum wage,
  2. ditto for Shared Paternity Pay and Shared Parental Pay.
  3. Make Shared Parental Leave more flexible – allowing it to be taken in smaller chunks.

The rates of statutory maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental pay are all rising on 2 April to £140.98.  This is the annual CPI adjustment – probably not what the TUC had in mind.

The current national minimum wage is currently £7.20 an hour for over 25s (due to rise to £7.50 from April 2017). So, as a very rough and ready calculation (based on a 30 hour working week) the TUC are talking about a rise in SMP to £225 a week.  No doubt that would be a big help to a lot of working families who rely on 2 incomes to make ends meet. But it’s difficult to see how such a large rise could be funded in these ‘challenging’ times.