· News

Government and business reject European maternity proposals

The European Union's attempts to introduce 20-weeks' paid maternity leave has provoked strong reaction from government and business.

The Coalition estimates that the proposals would cost the UK more than £2 billion a year, and the Minister for Employment Relations, Edward Davey MP, visited Brussels yesterday to lobby against the Pregnant Workers Directive.

"The proposals put forward by MEPs would be extremely costly to business and also to the public purse," Davey said. "They are also socially regressive — the greatest benefits would be obtained by those earning the most — and the rigid model being proposed would make it hard for countries to develop systems of shared parental leave which would offer better support to working parents."

Elsewhere, the British Chambers of Commerce — which estimates the potential cost at "nearly £3 billion" — urged the Government to fight the directive.

Dr Adam Marshall, their director of policy, called the costs "unacceptable", saying: "When public finances across the EU are tight, encouraging economic growth in the private-sector must be the top priority. "

A London-based law firm questioned who would pay for the proposals. Audrey Williams, partner and head of discrimination law at Eversheds, said: At present, UK employers can recover from the public purse a large proportion of the amount they pay out in statutory maternity pay. The Government will have to decide whether the same rules will apply to any increased maternity pay and, if not, how the cost should be split between taxpayer and employer."

As well as 20 weeks fully paid maternity leave, the proposals include 2 week fully paid paternity leave, improved protection against unfair dismissal for pregnant women and new mothers, paid breastfeeding breaks, improved health and safety protection for pregnant and breastfeeding women and extend leave for parents of premature babies.