· Features

Employers must keep in mind the huge financial penalties for falling foul of maternity legislation

In February, the Women's Rights Committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of a compulsory 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay. Current UK rules allow for a full year of maternity leave, with the first six weeks at 90% of average pay followed by 33 weeks on Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) of 123.06 (124.88 from April 2010) - which means these proposals would represent a significant increase. Although this legislation is a long way from becoming law in this country (if it ever reaches that stage), employers should be mindful of the recent proposals.

It is likely employers would shoulder the burden of any extension of maternity pay to 20 weeks full pay, and could face significant financial penalties if they fall foul of the law. There is no cap on the amount of compensation that can be awarded to a pregnant woman who has been discriminated against on the grounds of her pregnancy. Discriminating against a pregnant woman can have a massive impact on a business, and a dismissal on pregnancy grounds is automatically viewed as an unfair dismissal, regardless of the length of service.

All of this means that small employers could find it more difficult than ever to employ women of childbearing age.  Having to shoulder the cost of 20 weeks' full pay, as well as recruiting and paying for a replacement, places huge amounts of pressure on company budgets at a time when they are already tighter than ever.

By campaigning for such dramatic increases in maternity pay, working mothers may well find that they are putting themselves and other women at a disadvantage. For example, when faced with two candidates of equal calibre, one a woman aged 25 and another aged 53, an employer could well feel that the older candidate would represent the safest, most cost-effective option.

Far more conducive to improving the rights of mothers in the workplace will be legislation that comes into force in April 2010, which applies to parents with children born on or after 3 April 2011. This will allow mothers and fathers to share parental leave after six months, creating a more acceptable balance. Fathers will no longer have to give up holiday or pay to spend more time with their children; mothers will be able to return more easily to work without needing to resort to expensive childcare; and employers may lose key employees for a shorter period of time, reducing the pressure on their businesses.

It is worth noting that the Government's proposals to extend statutory maternity pay to 52 weeks have been postponed indefinitely. Considering the current economic climate it is not surprising that the Government is reining back on legislation, which will put a further burden on employers.   

When dealing with maternity and parental leave, it is vitally important that employers are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. The legislation that dictates the structure is complex and constantly changing, and the financial penalties for failing to meet its requirements can be substantial. Being up to date with developments on a UK and European level - and being well prepared for the changes - will help businesses to avoid litigation and provide a fairer workplace for their employees.

Judith Watson is head of employment at Cobbetts