Maternity leave: Lies, damn lies and statements by BEIS minister Paul Scully

In recent years, BEIS minister Paul Scully – a strong contender for the hotly-contested title of Most Idiotic Minister in the Johnson Government – has repeatedly and brazenly claimed that “the UK’s maternity leave system is one of the most generous in the world”. Here he is in June 2020, for example, defending the Government’s claim that “the UK’s maternity leave offer is among the most generous in the world” while giving oral evidence to the Petitions Committee of MPs. And here he is two years later, in February 2022, mindlessly regurgitating that claim in the House of Commons.

And, last week, Minister Scully was at it again. In Answer to a Parliamentary Question tabled by Labour’s shadow employment rights minister Justin Madders MP, the Minister boldly asserted that “the UK’s maternity leave entitlement is one of the most generous in the world, with employed women entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 [weeks] are paid”.

Doh! The UK’s paid maternity leave entitlement is only “one of the most generous in the world” if you overlook the teeny-weeny fact that, in most other comparable countries, most of the statutory paid leave available to working women who have just given birth is called parental leave, not maternity leave. And, in the UK, new mothers get no paid parental leave. Zilch. Nada. Rien. Here’s a chart that even Minister Scully should be able to get his head around.

Yes, in terms of the duration of paid maternity/parental leave available to new working mothers, the UK’s maternity leave system is more generous than that in Belgium, Iceland, Ireland, Malta, Portugal and Switzerland. But it is less generous than that in Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden … need I go on?

And do new mothers in Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden feel hard done by because they get fewer weeks of paid maternity leave than women in the UK? Of course they don’t.

So, if the UK’s maternity leave system isn’t “one of the most generous in the world” in terms of the duration of the paid leave available to new mothers, maybe Minister Scully had another measure in mind? Because, of course, the overall ‘generosity’ of any system of paid leave is a combination of the length of the leave entitlement, and the rate at which it is paid.

The OECD uses two alternative measures of the overall ‘generosity’ of paid maternity/parental leave. The first of these is the average payment rate, i.e. the % of previous earnings replaced over the length of the paid maternity/parental leave entitlement for a woman earning 100% of average national full-time earnings. And, as the following chart clearly shows, on this measure the UK’s maternity leave system is very far from being “one of the most generous in the world”.

The second measure of the ‘generosity’ of paid maternity/parental leave used by the OECD is full-rate equivalent, i.e. the duration of paid maternity/parental leave in weeks if it were paid at 100% of previous earnings. And, as the following chart shows, some countries (Finland, Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands) do better under this measure than they do under ‘average payment rate’. But the UK … not so much.

In short, Minister Scully’s claim that “the UK’s maternity leave offer is among the most generous in the world” is as delusional as the Prime Minister’s defence of his attendance at boozy parties in Downing Street during lockdown. The Covid regulations did not allow ‘work leaving dos’ or ‘morale-boosting speeches by the boss’, and at less than half of the legal minimum wage the UK’s statutory maternity and parental pay of just £156.66 per week is not going to secure the UK a top slot in international league tables.

But with a new parliamentary e-petition calling (somewhat modestly) for that pitiful rate of pay to be increased in line with the cost of living heading towards the threshold for a Westminster Hall debate of 100,000 signatures, it may not be long before Minister Scully is back in the House of Commons, telling MPs that the UK’s maternity leave offer is already among the most generous in the world. And – who knows? – by then the Minister may be able to tell us the outcome of the review of the UK’s chronically failing Shared Parental Leave scheme that his officials started more than four years ago.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and for Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.
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