The European Parliament has voted in favour of extending maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay, despite strong opposition from several national governments and intense lobbying from business organisations.
The draft law, which includes a provision for two weeks of fully paid paternity leave, was approved by a large majority, went much further than the European Commission's original proposal to increase minimum entitlement from 14 weeks to 18. "The vote today is very ambitious," said EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding. "But it certainly will not make it easy to find a balanced compromise with the council in the near future . . . I would like to see a balanced text that keeps women in the job market while not putting too much burden on member states' finances."
Dr Rosemary Keenan, Chief Executive of the Catholic Children's Society, (Westminster) has welcomed the news, with some reservations. She said: " The proposed increases, which are generous, will enable women to 'enjoy' a reasonable amount of time off with their baby without worrying about the financial impact of reduced pay. This is good news for babies. I would, however, be concerned that employers might be worried about covering the cost of this in addition to the cost of cover for maternity leave. Given the current financial climate, could this encourage employers faced with a choice of an equally qualified male and female candidate to favour the male candidate in attempt to avoid a potential maternity situation."
In Ireland, women are entitled to 26 weeks' maternity leave with the State paying benefits of between €225 and €270 per week. A further 16 weeks' unpaid maternity leave is also available. Irish MEP Nessa Childers (Labour) rejected as "exaggerated and grossly short-sighted" claims that the draft law would put further strain on Irish businesses and cost the Government more than €300m to implement. "Criticism doesn't take into account that more than 50 per cent of Irish women are already afforded full pay by their employers, which immediately slashes their figure by more than half," she claimed in an report in the Irish Times.
Portuguese MEP Edite Estrela, who drafted the legislation, hailed the vote as "good news for our economic future . . . maternity leave cannot be regarded as a burden on social security systems, it is an investment in our future."
Commentators say the controversial draft law, is likely to be watered down when it comes before the Council of Ministers.
For more information on the Catholic Children's Society Westminster, see: www.cathchild.org.uk/