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Know your Maternity Rights

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    In 1975, the Employment Protection Act was passed giving employees the right not to be unfairly dismissed by reason of their pregnancy. The same Act provided for six weeks maternity pay and introduced a right to return to work after maternity leave. These are considered to be some of the first family-friendly rights to be enacted in the UK.

    Things have moved on considerably since then. In 1980 the Employment Act introduced the right to paid time off for ante-natal care. In 1999, the Employment Relations Act brought in rights to parental leave and time off work to look after dependents and the Employment Act 2002 introduced rights to paid paternity and adoption leave and to request flexible working.

    In 2006, many of these rights were extended by the Work and Families Act. The main changes introduced by that Act include:-
    1. Extension of the period during which an employee is entitled to receive statutory payment during maternity or adoption leave from 26 to 39 weeks. (The Government has the power to further extend the maternity pay period to 12 months, but this extension has been postponed indefinitely, and seems unlikely to come into force in the near future);
    2. Introduction of a new statutory right to additional paternity leave of up to a maximum of 26 weeks on the birth or adoption of a child for employed fathers or partners of a mother or an adopter. This provision applies where the mother or adopter returns to work early;
    3. Extension of the right to request flexible working to employees with caring responsibilities for adults and to parents of children under 17 (or 18 in the case of disabled children);
    4. Removal of the 26- week qualifying service requirement for additional maternity leave. 
    5. Introduction of ‘keeping-in-touch’ days, giving employees the chance to work for up to 10 days during maternity or adoption leave without bringing it to an end;
    6. Clarification that ‘reasonable contact’ can be made between employer and employee during maternity or adoption leave.
    It should be noted that the above rights exist alongside employees’ rights not to be discriminated against under the Equality Act 2010.

    Further Developments

    After the general election in May 2010 the coalition government decided, after some discussion, that regulations proposed by the previous government relating to additional paternity leave and pay should be implemented. However, the government also announced that this would be an interim measure to encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy pending a full scale review of employment and workplace laws.

    In May 2011 the government published a ‘Consultation on Modern Workplaces’. This proposed to introduce a new system of shared flexible parental leave which would, if enacted, reshape existing rights to maternity, paternity adoption and parental leave.

    These, together with many other reforms are currently being muted by the government and you are strongly encouraged to keep a close eye on future reforms.

    Richard Stephens is a partner in the employment department of Vanderpump & Sykes Solicitors and can be contacted on: 020 8370 2875 or email richardstephens@vanderpumps.co.uk.
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