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EU maternity leave proposals deemed 'unaffordable'

A leading business group has described changes to maternity leave planned by the EU as "unaffordable".

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said that the proposals to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay would cost UK business an additional £2.5 billion annually.

The figure emerged from an impact assessment carried out on behalf of the European Parliament on the likely consequences of the change.

The initial plan, put forward by the European Commission, was to extend fully paid maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, but with member states able to specify a ceiling which must be equal to statutory sick pay.

However, the Women's Rights Committee of the European Parliament subsequently agreed amendments to the Commission proposal whereby maternity leave would be extended to 20 weeks on full pay.

At the moment, new mothers in the UK are entitled to a year off work. The first six weeks can be taken on 90 per cent of pay, with a following 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay of £124.88 a week, which is 55 per cent higher than sick pay. The remainder is unpaid.

MEPs are due to vote on the plans in mid October, but the BCC has argued that they will not be able to come to a fully informed decision because the impact assessment only took into account the costs and benefits for ten out of the 27 member states.

Kieran O'Keeffe, head of European affairs at the BCC, said: "This directive should be about setting minimum EU standards for the health and safety of pregnant workers - not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems.

"These figures confirm that the Parliament's proposals are completely unaffordable as governments across the EU seek to deal with budget deficits and the aftermath of recession.

"The Commission's original proposal to extend maternity leave to 18 weeks, but with individual member states allowed to decide the level of pay, is a better, more affordable option."