Could employers offer unlimited maternity leave?

TV personality and self-styled ‘Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas suggested recently that maternity leave provisions in the UK should be more generous. Speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit, she proposed that mothers should receive full pay during maternity leave, should be able to take unlimited maternity leave and should not be required to inform employers of when they plan to return to work.

The former government-appointed ‘shops Tsar’ confirmed that she had paid two of her company’s directors full pay during maternity leave and the company had reaped the rewards of such action. She also claimed that existing maternity provisions are holding too many women back from having children and that requiring employers to pay full salary can be used to combat this.

However, these proposals have been met with scepticism from business leaders. John Longworth, the former head of the British Chambers of Commerce, claimed that these suggestions were not economically practical and would ‘bankrupt most British businesses. ’Concerns have also been raised that increasing maternity pay and providing for more beneficial treatment would actually make employers reluctant to hire women of child-bearing age.

Under current UK legislation, women are entitled to 39 weeks of maternity pay, which is comprised of 6 weeks at 90% of average pay followed by 33 weeks of statutory maternity pay (currently £139.58 per week) or 90% of average pay, whichever is the lower. Given that women are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, 13 weeks of this is unpaid if the full entitlement is taken.

So how generous are the UK’s maternity leave provisions?

Some employers do offer enhanced maternity leave packages to encourage retention of staff. One likely condition of such enhanced terms, however, is a requirement to repay the enhanced element should they not to return to work or decide to resign within a certain period following their return from maternity leave. In addition, Shared Parental Leave was introduced in April 2015 so that parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave. This can be useful as a means to increase the family’s income if the mother is the higher earner.

Whilst the UK’s maternity leave provisions are not as generous as those in Scandinavia for example, which are seen to offer the most progressive and generous terms, the UK’s maternity leave provisions in fact already exceed the minimum required under EU law. Therefore, even in the event of a Brexit vote, it is difficult to imagine that repealing legislation in this area will be a priority. In addition, whilst the UK has also extended family-friendly rights over the past few years it has not shown any appetite for increasing maternity leave pay and provisions to the extent proposed by Mary Portas. Consequently it is unlikely that these provisions will be amended any time soon, especially in the current economic climate.

Samantha Prosser is a solicitor at leading senior executive employment law firm BDBF.