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A call for a sensible approach to maternity leave

Submitted by on 17 Feb 2011 – 15:30

By Marina Yannakoudakis MEP

October 2010 will go down as the month the Women’s Committee in the EU scored a home goal in terms of Women’s Rights. For this was the month the plenary session in Strasbourg voted in favour of the “Pregnant Works and Health Directive” which, in real terms, turned into the “Maternity Leave Directive” with compulsory 20 week fully paid maternity leave for all women, employees and the self-employed.

As one famous entrepreneur once said: “Equality legislation, if taken too far, can actually reduce the chances of women gaining employment”.

The original Directive was co-decision, and therefore legislative. It was based around the health and working conditions of pregnant workers and women who have recently given birth. However, in the midst of the hundreds of amendments, it was amendments 12 and 38 that resulted in shock waves being sent through most European governments.

Amendments 12 and 38 asked for compulsory 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave. When these amendments were originally included in the Directive some 5 months prior to the Women’s Committee, the Directive was barely passed by 6 votes. At this stage it was clear the Directive had moved a long way from the original proposals by the commission and the effect of this amended Directive were not known. I therefore requested the Parliament to carry out an Impact Assessment on behalf of my group, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, in the hope that once the full impact was known the Women’s Committee would reassess their position on this Directive. The Impact Assessment came back stating that the cost of this leave would be catastrophic to business, in that the total cost to the EU would be €121 billion between now and 2030 – the UK being the most adversely affected, at a cost of £2.5 billion a year.

Regardless, the Directive was put forward for a vote in Strasbourg, and it was passed; with amendments 12 and 38 being passed by only 7 votes.

There are two main arguments for the compulsory leave. Firstly, the EU should achieve an employment rate of 95% for women by 2020. Secondly, the EU needed to increase its falling birth rates, and this Directive will encourage women to have children. One of the major flaws here is it negates choice. It assumes all women want to work outside of the home. Furthermore, social engineering in terms of increasing the birth rate through this Directive is at best ill-conceived; children are a lifelong commitment, both financially and emotionally.

It was interesting to see that when the chips were down national governments advised their MEPs to vote in support to the national interests. The majority of UK MEPs voted against the Directive, as did the German and the French. The smaller member states voted in favour. Here again it was interesting to see that many member states who voted in favour already have 20 weeks of compulsory maternity leave in place, which meant the Directive had no effect on their economy. In fact, one MEP from a smaller state said that the UK should pay for the maternity leave costs from the Defence Budget.

This legislation, should it become law, will in my opinion have a negative effect on the employment prospects of young women. The economic bite on cash strapped governments will probably be passed on to companies. The truth is “the devil is in the detail” and this legislation did not take into account who would cover the extra payments proposed. In today’s economy it would hit hard the very SME’s on whom the economic recovery is relying on.

The Directive is now in the hands of the European Council where each Member State will have to argue national interest. Once the Council has had their input the Directive will return to Parliament for its second reading. There were some good sentiments behind this Directive. But what it failed to understand was that it would have unintended consequences which are harmful to taxpayers, to businesses, to Member States and, most importantly, to women.