The European parliament has turned town proposals to extend maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks.
The proposals to amend the Pregnant Workers Directive would have allowed new mothers to take 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay. However, ministers said they went “too far” and that the terms were “not a basis for negotiation”, commented Belgian employment minister Joelle Milquet, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
The UK currently allows new mothers to take six weeks maternity leave at 90% of their full wage, followed by 33 weeks pay at £124.88 a week.
British ministers said the new plans were impractical and would more than double its maternity leave costs to £2.4bn a year.
Edward Davey, minister for employment relations, told a meeting in Brussels this week that the proposals “would be extremely costly to business and also to the public purse”.
“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,” he added.
France and Germany were also among those who rejected the proposals, estimating additional costs of €1.3bn and €1.2bn respectively.
Ministers were equally reluctant to include paternity leave in the directive, as it said its primary purpose was to “improve the health and safety of pregnant women and workers who have recently given birth”.
The European Commission initially suggested 18 weeks maternity leave following recommendations from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – a proposal which will be looked at again next year when Hungary takes on the EU presidency.
Trade unions were disappointed with this week’s outcome. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Government research shows that increasing maternity pay encourages women to return to their employer. Ministers should be encouraging this, not looking for new ways to impoverish parents."