Parenting and women’s rights charities have called on the prime minister not to weaken maternity legislation in next week’s budget, following reports that employers with fewer than 10 staff may no longer be obliged to offer the full amount of paid leave.
Leaked details of a new “growth strategy” suggest that the chancellor could propose a deregulation drive designed to assist small companies.
Maternity leave legislation is one area likely to be affected, and the government is said to be considering giving small employers the right to negotiate maternity and paternity leave arrangements individually with staff.
In response, 26 charities have signed an open letter to David Cameron, warning that the changes would have a negative effect on families – and undermine rights put in place to help parents “balance their family and work responsibilities and remain in the workforce during their childbearing years”.
The letter, signed by the chief executives of the Fawcett Society, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Family and Parenting Institute, continues: “We do not think it appropriate to exempt any employers from current statutory obligations to provide maternity and paternity leave.
“The needs of parents and their children do not vary with the size of their employers’ business.
“Parents who are not entitled to maternity or paternity leave are forced to choose between remaining in their job or caring for their children.
“In the current difficult employment market, parents who choose to take time off to care for their children risk ending up longterm unemployed.”
The charities cite research suggesting that paid parental leave has a positive impact on child and maternal health, and promotes breastfeeding.
It is not clear whether the proposals would be acceptable under European law, but the charities warned: “In an environment of rising unemployment and widespread pregnancy discrimination, employees are in a very weak negotiating position.”
More women than men are employed by smaller businesses, according to Ros Bragg, director of campaign group Maternity Action.
“Research into pregnancy discrimination has identified small businesses as a particularly problematic group and it is worrying that these changes are increasing so-called flexibility for a group which has real issues around compliance with anti-discrimination laws at present,” she said.
She believes the political debate over maternity leave is shifting away from focusing on its benefits to scrutinising its cost to business.
In a new report, Think Small First, the CBI has made a number of recommendations designed to help small businesses. It suggests allowing smaller firms to ask someone going on maternity leave to specify when they plan to return.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would not comment ahead of the budget, which will be announced on 23 March.
Currently a woman is allowed up to a year’s statutory maternity leave, with six weeks at 90% of full pay and a flat rate for a further 33 weeks.
She also has the right to be offered her old job, or a similar position on the same salary and conditions, when she returns to work.
From April, fathers will be able to take up to 26 weeks of the leave previously reserved for mothers; they will also have access to statutory paternity pay, which is equal to the amount that would otherwise have been paid to the mother.