Do CBI's plans risk "throwing the baby out with the bath water"?

Experts weigh in on the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)'s maternity leave extension plans

The CBI's call for the government to extend paid maternity leave has been criticised by some for not going far enough, while others warned of potential negative impacts.

The CBI has, as part of a wish list released in the run-up to the autumn statement, called on the government to extend statutory mandatory pay to 52 weeks. The Invest for the future – business priorities for Autumn Statement 2016 release asks the government to close the gap between maternity pay and childcare support (part-funded through vouchers) by extending statutory mandatory pay and providing 15 hours of free childcare to all children aged one to four.

But Suzanne Horne, partner and employment lawyer at Paul Hastings, expressed concern that this increase could expose more women to pregnancy discrimination. “Current UK maternity leave laws are some of the most generous in the world, with women receiving up to 39 weeks' statutory maternity pay and 52 weeks' maternity leave,” she explained. “Comparatively the current minimum maternity leave requirement under the EU Pregnant Workers Directive is only 14 weeks.

“The CBI risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater by urging the chancellor to extend paid maternity leave. It is highly likely that this would actually increase the risk of pregnancy discrimination against women as it would place too heavy a burden on employers.”

She instead advised that the government investigate ways to help new fathers and partners of new mothers. “Rather than extending paid maternity leave the government should focus on measures to simplify the shared parental leave system and help employers create a co-parenting culture,” she said.

Julia Waltham, head of policy and campaigns at charity Working Families, welcomed the proposal but said that government and employers must go further.

"The childcare gap between the end of maternity and parental leave and children starting school can be stressful for working parents, [who are] often forced to choose between their home and work life,” she told HR magazine. “Proposals to help bridge that gap are welcome.

"But more flexible working opportunities are crucial to parents being able to take advantage of any childcare offer – and creating real choice around combining work and care. Employers and the economy would benefit – by enabling more parents, especially women, to return to work if they want to, fully utilising their skills and experience."

Sam Smethers, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, agreed that wider action is necessary. "We need to make a fundamental shift and improve paid leave for fathers, moving to equalisation of leave entitlements so that caring for children can be seen as a shared responsibility. Only then will we end the motherhood penalty," she said.

The CBI's recommendation marks a departure from claims in 2005 that plans to lengthen maternity leave (from six to the current nine months) would unfairly burden businesses.