European MPs are backing proposals to make various amendments to the Pregnant Workers Directive. The most controversial of these is the plan to extend paid maternity to 20 weeks on full pay, a proposal which would be mandatory across the European Union.

At the moment women in the UK are entitled to 12 months’ maternity leave, with the first six weeks on 90% pay followed by 33 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay, currently at a rate of £124.88. Businesses can claim back all or most of this from the Government depending on the circumstances.

The main argument behind the proposed change is that Europe needs to encourage women to have children to ease concerns over the ageing population and low birth-rates. However, UK business leaders and the Coalition Government are actively lobbying against it on the basis that the cost to UK business could be as high as an extra £2.5bn a year and in light of fears that the proposals could lead to a rise in cases of indirect discrimination against women in the workplace.

The Directive will not be implemented unless and until it has been approved by the EU Council of Ministers. In light of the considerable controversy surrounding the proposal, it is likely that the Council will propose amendments before it approves the Directive.