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Mothers are struggling to survive on statutory maternity pay and have blasted it as “sexist” and “not enough to live on”, as campaigners call for it to be increased substantially to stop families being driven into poverty and financial hardship.
Maternity campaigners say the UK’s poor maternity pay is pushing exhausted new mums into returning to work earlier than they want. The alternative, they say, is crippling debt and queuing up at food banks with newborns.
Statutory maternity pay currently stands at £156.66 per week and from April, it will increase to £172.48 a week.
Women get 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks. They then, currently, get £156.66 or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings, whichever is lower, for the next 33 weeks. Mothers can take up to a year off on maternity leave, but the remainder of the year will be unpaid.
Statutory maternity pay is paid in the same way as wages, either monthly or weekly and tax and National Insurance is deducted. Companies can choose to pay more than the statutory amounts with their maternity scheme.
Ros Bragg, director of maternity rights charity Maternity Action, tells i the current basic rate of statutory maternity pay equates to just 47 per cent of the National Living Wage – based on a 35-hour week at the adult rate of £9.50 an hour – and says the failure of maternity pay to keep up with the dramatic increase in the cost of living is driving more pregnant women and new mothers into poverty and hardship.
“Compared to Europe, the UK has extraordinarily low rates of maternity pay,” she says. “We regularly hear from the government that they offer generous pay and leave provisions, but this is disingenuous.
“In Europe, maternity leave and pay is commonly followed by well paid parental leave and pay, so families have extended periods in which they can take leave on full pay or part pay with full support from the government.
“It is incredible that in contrast, families in the UK need to save large amounts of money in order to be able to feed and house themselves during their pregnancy and maternity leave.
“It is very clear that European governments can afford to support parents and it is worrying that the UK government is not prepared to prioritise them with such support.”
Ms Bragg says that while statutory maternity pay has gone up in line with inflation in recent years, it just isn’t connected to the actual costs of living and that families don’t get adequate income from it, with many facing a significant drop in income.
“The assumption when maternity pay was brought in was that you would have the statutory provision and that employers would pay on top of that – and some employers do – but a lot don’t.
“There are also big holes in the benefit system and there are a lot of women in financial difficulties as a result of the very low rates of maternity pay.
“Some parents are forced to take out loans, some are going to food banks and some parents are going back to work earlier than they anticipated after having a baby.”
She adds: “It is not just low income women who are affected – it is a concern across all income levels.
“We want to see the rate of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance increased and I think it is fair to have the minimum wage, which is technically called the National Living Wage, as your baseline.”
Laura Leadbeater, 32, who lives in Leeds with her husband, has three children and is currently on maternity leave with her son Jake who is three months old. She knows her time at home with him is limited because she is returning to work in another three months as they can’t afford for her to take any more time off.
“I’m only planning to have six months maternity leave, not out of choice, but because we can’t afford for me to stay off work any longer,” she tells i.
Laura says she has only been able to take six months off with each of her three children due to the costs involved and felt guilty each time. She was particularly affected after returning to work after having her son Alex, now two, as he has Down’s syndrome and was experiencing numerous health issues.
“Alex had a number of health complications and when I went back to work, I was still taking him for treatment for epilepsy, for potential strokes and for heart problems. I got rushed into hospital when I was at work, when in reality, I should have still been on maternity leave,” she said.
“This time around with Jake, with the anxiety I had last time, it has been really difficult to only take six months again. But there is absolutely no way we can afford for me to take any longer.”
Laura, who is head of talent and marketing at a recruitment firm, explains that she gets 90 per cent of her pay for the first six weeks of maternity, which then drops to statutory maternity pay – currently £156.66 a week – until around nine months, She could then technically choose to take another three months unpaid, but says there is “zero chance of me being able to afford to do that”.
“In the dynamics of my relationship with my husband, who works in direct sales, I am the person who earns more money,” she says. “This means even though I’m not by any means on absolutely loads, when you’re the one bringing in the most money and you take a big cut, it has a huge effect on what we can afford at home.
“With three kids, there’s just no way I could make statutory maternity pay stretch when we’ve got mortgages and bills to pay.”
Laura says statutory maternity pay isn’t enough at all for families, especially now with bills going up so much with the cost of living crisis. “I feel statutory maternity pay is completely sexist,” she says. “It makes the assumption that the woman is bringing in less money and that it’s OK if it’s less than what she’d usually earn because she’s got ‘the man to fall back on.’
“But that isn’t the case for us or for a lot of families and it has been a huge blow to our finances.”
Laura says she knows couples can choose to take shared parental leave after having a baby – where they can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them – but she says in reality, it is still overwhelmingly women who take leave after having a baby. “Let’s be honest, one of the reasons women have maternity leave is because they’re also recovering after the ordeal of giving birth. It’s not just about being off with the baby.
“I do believe that maternity pay is sexist as I feel if it was men who were overwhelmingly affected by these issues, there would be a lot more focus on it and there would be a bigger push for change.”
Laura says she is already looking at Jake and feeling saddened and guilty at the thought of returning to work in another three months. And she says she feels further guilt as she knows she will have to wean him off breastfeeding before her return to work. “You are recommended to breastfeed for six months,” she says. “But you can’t just stop bang on one night, you have to wean your baby off. My job is too demanding for me to pump during the day at work. So that adds to my guilt.
“You feel guilt at leaving your children whenever you go back to work, but it feels 10 times worse when you go back early and before you feel you are ready.”
She reveals that taking maternity leave has also led to them being in debt as they have to rely on credit cards. “We barely use credit cards the rest of the time, but since I’ve been on maternity, we’ve had to use them to get by, particularly towards the end of the month so that we can afford food.”
Laura believes that if statutory maternity pay was tied to the cost of living, it would be a huge boost to families like hers and benefit people’s mental health. “At the moment, it feels like I am constantly worrying about money, which takes its toll when you’re meant to be enjoying your baby,” she says.
Amy Lockwood, is 24-weeks pregnant with her second baby and tells i she is already worrying and has had sleepless nights because she knows she won’t be able to have as much time off as she would like with her new baby due to money pressures.
Amy, who lives in Essex with partner Danny Jordan and already has a two-year-old daughter Myla, says she is planning to have four or five months off on maternity leave – but says it would be a lot less if it wasn’t for the fact her company pays full pay for the first three months of maternity.
The 27-year-old explains: “I work on a holiday park and had a job in recruitment, but I was made redundant from that towards the back end of last year when I was only about 12 weeks pregnant.
“It was very scary, but luckily, a sales position came up at the same company and I am now doing that job. However, I had to take a pay cut.
“We planned our second pregnancy because at the time, I was in a well paid job and so was Danny. We knew the cost of living crisis was happening, but we had things in place, so began trying for a second baby and luckily, I became pregnant.
“But then we got the news about me being made redundant and then I had to take a pay cut with my new job and with the cost of living crisis, all our bills have now gone up.”
Amy says she is desperately trying to save £100 a month during her pregnancy to help cover the time she is on maternity leave and her partner is saving as well to help tide them through that period while she’s on statutory maternity pay. She says she is lucky her company has a good maternity scheme, and pays full pay for the first three months, and if it wasn’t for that she would only be able to afford to take a couple of months off with her new baby.
“It feels very sad and upsetting to know I’ll have to go back to work so quickly and not have the time off I’d like with my new baby because you’ll never get that time back again when they’re so little,” she says.
“It does upset me when I think about it, but there’s nothing I can do about it as we need to pay our mortgage, bills and childcare for our daughter.”
Amy says she feels statutory maternity pay doesn’t match up to the cost of living and people’s salaries. “With a joint income of £50,000 a year, we are still only just able to pay our mortgage and bills and childcare and we have nothing left to do nice things as a family,” she says.
“We felt very scared when everything happened with me being made redundant and having to take a pay cut as it was so unexpected, especially with me being pregnant.
“But fortunately, we have got a very supportive family and they would never let us be in a position where we couldn’t pay our bills. However, we know not everyone is lucky enough to have that support.
“When I do go on maternity leave, the money I get while I am off will go straight on bills. It’s very stressful and instead of being the happiest time of your life thinking about introducing a new baby to the world, you’re worrying about being able to afford everything.
“Knowing that you will have two children to look after and keep a roof over their heads and keep them fed is a very worrying time.
“I know there will be people in worse situations than us who don’t have family to fall back on. We’re fortunate we have them to go to if something did go wrong. But you also don’t want to always rely on other people.”
Pregnant Then Screwed, which campaigns against maternity discrimination, carried out a survey which found that 71 per cent of women aren’t taking the length of maternity leave they’d like to because they can’t afford it. One in 20 women told the charity they would be taking three months or less before they needed to get back to work for financial reasons.
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, says: “We have the third-worst ranking maternity benefit and the least generous paternity benefit in Europe.
“The consequences of this can be devastating for parents and their newborns. Inevitably, it means that children from more deprived households are being denied this essential care and protection in those early months while their mothers are forced back to work before they are mentally and physically ready.
“If we truly want to level up, then let’s start by ensuring new families aren’t pushed into poverty from the outset.”
MATERNITY PAY RANKINGS
The UK and Ireland are among the worst in Europe when it comes to statutory maternity pay, a league table from global employment platform Boundless revealed.
They analysed how individual countries compensated women as they became new mothers and discovered the UK is third worst and Ireland is second worst, only coming behind Malta.
The analysis found Bulgaria boasts Europe’s best maternity package. It allows new mothers to take 58.6 weeks off (410 days), with its National Health Insurance Fund paying 90 per cent of their full salary during leave (with a social security cap of €1,700).
Similarly, Norway pays mothers 80 to 100 per cent of their full salary for at least 49 weeks. Its Scandinavian neighbours are not far behind, with Sweden paying 80 per cent of an employee’s full salary for 34 weeks and Finland paying 90 per cent for 29 weeks.
In contrast, the UK offers new mothers up to 52 weeks of maternity leave. However, they are entitled to 90 per cent of their average weekly pay for just the first six weeks. In Ireland, new mothers get 42 weeks of maternity leave with €245 paid weekly for the first 26 weeks.
Anna Whitehouse, author and founder of motherhood blog Mother Pukka and Flex Appeal, the campaign for more flexible working for everyone, tells i: “Maternity leave is a time when mothers are at their most vulnerable.
“They are sellotaped together at the seams and are utterly exhausted from responding to the every whim of their newborn babies.
“These are the women who are bringing up the generations of our future, the very children that we desperately need to fuel our economy and to keep our society functioning.
“And yet mothers are given a pittance from the government to survive on. Maternity pay doesn’t pay the bills and so parental leave becomes a luxury and one that many mothers are cutting short because they quite simply need to put food on the table.
“We need to start investing in mothers and children, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do – for everyone.”
Sara Reis, acting director of the Women’s Budget Group, an independent not-for-profit organisation which monitors the impact of government policies on men and women, says current statutory maternity leave disadvantages the most precarious workers and those with the lowest incomes, leaving many mothers in a challenging financial situation.
“In the face of the current cost of living crisis, we are seeing the implications of this in the most dramatic way as new mothers are forced to go back to work early and to queue up at food banks with their newborns,” she says.
“New mothers are expected to live on an income that is well under the National Minimum Wage. Current rates of maternity and paternity leave in the UK are among the lowest in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
“On top of this, many of the lowest paid and most precarious workers are not entitled to any maternity or paternity leave because of employment status or length of service.
“Increasing statutory maternity pay in line with inflation is the minimum the Government should do. In the medium term, we need to see broader policy change.
“We need to move towards a system that offers significant well-paid periods of leave for both mothers and fathers/partners to encourage a more equitable split of care between parents alongside a flexible by default UK labour market.”
A Government spokesperson says: “The UK has one of the most generous maternity leave entitlements in the world, and from April statutory maternity and paternity pay will increase by 10.1 per cent.
“We have also spent more than £20bn over the past five years to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare, as well as setting out plans to make the right to request flexible working a day one right for all employees, helping parents work around childcare arrangements.”