David Cameron’s strategy director Steve Hilton reportedly suggested that the solution to the economic crisis is to abolish maternity leave. He believes this will cut red tape and kick start the economy. This is less “blue sky thinking” and more “living in cloud cuckoo land”.

At a time when ministers are putting pressure on companies to follow Lord Davies’ recommendations for encouraging more women into boardrooms, comments such as Hilton’s are a step back for women in the workforce. Women contribute a great deal to the success of the organisations for which they work. The Financial Times reported only last week that women are more loyal to their employers than men, particularly if they are treated fairly during maternity leave and are allowed to work flexibly or part time on their return to work.

The cost to employers of losing talented female employees in whom they have invested time, money and resources in training and career development is huge. In order to prevent such losses, employers who pay enhanced maternity pay usually have maternity policies specifying that the amount has to be repaid unless the employee returns to work and stays for a certain period afterwards.

Some employers also pay staggered, return-to-work bonuses as an inducement to mothers to return to work and remain for a specified period. This more or less guarantees that most women will return to work following maternity leave for at least the time specified in the policy. The financial impact of the “female brain drain” would only increase if statutory maternity leave were to be abolished because that would spell the end of employers’ retention schemes too.

And then there’s the effect that abolishing maternity rights would have on UK employment rights as a whole. Women are now entitled to:

  • paid time off for ante natal care
  • health and safety protection while pregnant and breast feeding up to 52 weeks’ statutory maternity leave, regardless of length of service, with a right to return to the same job
  • up to 39 weeks’ statutory maternity pay, if they meet the qualifying criteria
  • priority for alternative employment on redundancy right to request flexible working on return to work
  • protection from dismissal, detriment or discrimination by reason of pregnancy or maternity

Some of these rights have been on the statute book since 1975, and are now endorsed through EU directives. It is hard to see how they could be abandoned without pulling out of EU law altogether, and equally hard to see how the UK could remain in Europe if that were the case. The relevant provisions of UK law dealing with maternity leave would need to be repealed and the government would be opening itself up to claims from affected women for compensation from the state for failing to implement an EU directive. Severing ties with our biggest trading partners at the same time as putting half of our workforce at a comparative disadvantage would certainly have consequences for the UK economy, but not the positive ones Hilton predicts.

The Government is currently consulting on a system of parental leave that will “encourage shared parenting from the early stages of pregnancy”. From April 2015 there will be an 18-week period of maternity leave, followed by a 34-week period of shared parental leave. Presumably Hilton is also opposed to these family-friendly proposals that will benefit working fathers as well as mothers?

While maternity leave, paternity leave and increased parental rights are without doubt an administrative headache for employers, this is one piece of red tape that should be retained, embraced and applauded as it benefits employers, families and Cameron’s “Big Society”. Parents who feel their employer enables them to achieve a good equilibrium between work and family life will be more productive and engaged, less stressed, more balanced individuals – and that can only be an asset to their organisations.

This article first appeared on www.peoplemanagement.co.uk on 4 August 2011.