On 20 October, the European Parliament voted on the European Commission’s proposal to reform the 1992 Maternity Leave Directive (Directive 92/85/EEC). Whilst the Commission had recommended 18 weeks’ maternity leave, either on full pay or at a rate at or above the level of sick pay, the European Parliament voted by a large majority to go beyond this, seeking to extend the minimum period of maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks fully paid. The European Parliament also approved an entitlement to paid paternity leave of two weeks.

Under Irish law, women are entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave and are paid maternity benefit of between €225.80 and €270 per week by the State through the Department of Social Protection. Under the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004, women are also entitled to an additional 16 weeks maternity leave which is unpaid. There is no statutory provision for paternity leave, paid or unpaid.

Approximately half of Irish employers, including the public service top up maternity benefit to full pay. The European Parliament is now considering it a legal requirement that all employers fully pay employees while on maternity leave.

A conciliation procedure will now commence to find a compromise between the two positions. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, there has been strong opposition from governments and employers’ groups. The Council of Ministers, which represents the interests of the 27 EU Member States, will now need to address some form of compromise before it is returned to the European Parliament for a vote. As yet, no time-frame has been set out as to when this will take place.