Euro-MPs have voted overwhelmingly to extend minimum maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay – a move which could cost the Treasury an extra £2.5bn a year if it came into law.
The decision, by a 390-192 vote of the European Parliament, marks the start of months of wrangling with governments, including the UK, which say the move is unnecessary and unaffordable and could discourage the employment of young female workers.
Today's vote had been delayed for an "impact assessment" of the MEPs' plan. The resulting report put the extra cost in a sample of 10 EU countries at 121.18 billion euros (£101.636 billion) between now and 2030.
The UK would bear 47% of the total, said the report – £47,832bn or £2.5bn a year.
The plan also provides for two weeks' paternity leave.
The current minimum EU requirement, agreed in 1992, minimum maternity leave is set at 14 weeks, with pay for the duration to be no lower than sickness pay in the member state concerned.
But the European Commission decided to increase the benefit, proposing 18 weeks' maternity leave, with the exact pay rate left to national authorities.
By going even further, MEPs have guaranteed a tussle not just with the UK but with other member states with relatively generous national schemes, such as Germany, Belgium and Spain.
Current UK rules give pregnant women up to a full year off, six weeks of it paid at 90% of the mother's average pay, followed by 33 weeks on Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) of nearly £125 a week – 55% higher than sick pay. The rest is unpaid.
British government officials say there is no need to update the existing arrangements, not least because there are no cross-border implications in Europe for differing maternity leave regimes in the member states.
Copyright © Press Association 2010
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"And how do they think we are going to be able to afford this in the current economic climate?" – Mike, Barnsley