The Social Welfare Act 2017 (the "2017 Act") was enacted (in part) on 23 December 2017. The 2017 Act gives effect to various social welfare measures. In particular, it extends maternity leave entitlement and related State maternity benefit in cases where a baby is born prematurely.

Section 16 of the 2017 Act amends the Maternity Protection Act 1994 to provide for a further period of maternity leave for mothers of babies born prematurely on or after 1 October 2017.

The further period of maternity leave is equal to the 'premature birth period' defined by Section 15(2) of the 2017 Act commencing on the actual date of birth and expiring two weeks before the expected week of birth. Provision is also made for the extended payment of State maternity benefit for the length of the premature birth period. These additional entitlements apply after the end of the standard 26 week period of maternity leave. The changes do not create any obligation for employers to pay enhanced maternity benefit to employees (over and above State maternity benefit) during the premature birth period.

Employers should now be aware that mothers of premature babies will be entitled to a longer period of maternity leave. Attaching benefits and relevant policies and procedures should be considered and updated as necessary in order to cover these enhanced entitlements.