In the UK, families are rightly frustrated with a system which has failed to keep up with the realities of modern life. This is why Labour has proposed a number of policies aimed at helping working families to balance their responsibilities. For example, we have pledged to double paid paternity leave and extend free childcare to 25 hours per week.
At the European level, we continue to push for stronger policies. As I have written about recently, the European Commission has announced that it intends to scrap the proposal for a new directive on maternity leave because it has been blocked by the Council of the EU (formerly the Council of Ministers) for several years. Under the auspices of a programme intended to improve regulatory efficiency (REFIT), we have been given until the end of spring to get negotiations going.
The proposal – first published by the Commission in 2008 and adopted by the European Parliament at its first reading in 2010 – aims to extend the minimum length of maternity leave. The version eventually adopted by the European Parliament put this at 20 weeks (the standard recommended by the WHO) and also included a provision for two weeks of paternity leave.
Since then, the situation has not moved forward. Despite the unreserved willingness of the European Parliament to reach a compromise, ministers in member states, including the UK government, have shown strong opposition to saving this draft directive.
Given the current impasse, and the apparent unwillingness of the Council of the EU to get around the negotiating table, Socialists and Democrats group, which Labour MEPs are part of, have put forward a new set of proposals.
We are proposing 18 weeks statutory leave (the current standard recommended by the ILO) with 6 weeks at 100% of previous pay (then 12 weeks paid in accordance with current practice in Member States, or 85% where no such provision is in place).
We are also calling for a new, separate directive providing for minimum paternity leave of ten working days.
These proposals are relatively modest and merely bring the rights of all women into line with those in other member states who already fulfil stronger criteria, such as the 18 week duration recommended by the ILO.
Differences in access to statutory maternity rights across Europe are stark. In Belgium, women are entitled to a minimum of just nine weeks of postnatal maternity leave. In Bulgaria, by contrast, women are entitled to one year of leave. This disparity goes against the right of women workers to enjoy labour mobility; a founding principle of the European Union enshrined in the Treaties. It is simply indefensible that we have such a variation in the standard of women’s rights available across member states.
Women have been hit the hardest by the crisis and our recovery has been characterised by low wage, precarious employment with women unable to play their full role in the labour market. Unfair and unequal treatment of pregnant workers has long-term effects on our economy and is still a major contributory factor in the gender pay and pensions gaps (16% and 39% respectively). This is why Europe urgently needs a modern maternity leave framework that enables mothers and fathers to pursue fulfilling work and family lives.
Moreover, the demographic challenges posed by Europe’s falling birth rate and ageing population cannot be solved if we ignore maternity policy. Recent research has shown that France’s strong birth rate can be attributed to family and child friendly policies.
My reason for supporting these measures is simple: European women deserve better. The crisis of legitimacy facing our democratic institutions will not be resolved unless all actors engage in an open and accountable manner and demonstrate that they are working in the interests of families across Europe.
It will soon fall to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to explain to the British people why they were not able to cooperate with other EU member states on something as fundamentally important as the health, safety and rights of pregnant women. I look forward with interest to their response.