What Does HR Need To Know About UK Maternity Leave?

Maternity leave and parental leave

Maternity leave and parental leave are important subjects. Often, some of the common questions include: How long is it? Can parents of all genders take it? What is parental leave pay (and how much is it)?

More importantly, what rules govern maternity and parental leave? In this article, we break down some of the most commonly-asked questions. These include maternity leave, parental leave, and maternity and paternity leave pay.

After, as an HR leader, you’ll know more about your obligations, deadlines, responsibilities, and more. We hope you enjoy the read!

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How Long is Maternity Leave?

Maternity leave can normally last up to one year. But, it is broken down into two parts: ordinary maternity leave (the first 26 weeks) and additional maternity leave. The second lasts for another 26 weeks. Mothers are required to take four weeks’ leave after their baby is born (or four weeks if they work in a factory). Beyond that, though, it is up to them.

Employees can usually start the maternity leave period up to 11 weeks before the expected date of childbirth. Or, the day after the birth when the child is early. If employees are off work for a pregnancy-related illness four weeks before, then their maternity leave will begin at that point.

Is Parental Leave Just for Mothers?

Just as the definition of a parent has changed over time (same-sex partners can be parents, too), parental leave is not just for mothers. Employees don’t have to have had the baby themselves, either (those who have had a child with a surrogate or are entitled to parental leave).

As this BBC news article explains it, “The rights apply to parents in work, including those who are adopting, same-sex couples, co-habiting couples, and couples bringing up a child together even if the baby is from a previous relationship.”

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Who Can Take Leave, And When?

The rules here are a bit complicated. In essence, ‘Shared Parental Leave’ (SPL) as it is called, allows parents to split the leave time between them.

They can also be entitled to receive Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP). According to the gov.uk site, you:

  • Can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay.
  • Need to share the pay and leave in the first year after your child is born or placed with your family.
  • Can use SPL to take leave in blocks separated by periods of work, or take it all in one go.
  • You can also choose to be off work together or to stagger the leave and pay.

However, employees do need to meet eligibility criteria (which are different for birth parents and adoptive parents). More importantly, and especially for HR, they also need to give notice to their employers as well as meet ‘length of employment’ criteria.

Specifically, parents wanting to take SPL or ShPP must “have been employed continuously by the same employer for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the due date.”

They can split SPL up into 3 separate blocks of leave, if they choose, and if they want to come back to work at a different date to what you originally agreed, that’s okay. But, this is only true if they give you at least eight weeks of notice. You can also ask for the birth certificate and details of their partner’s employer.

How Much Money Are Employees Entitled to?

According to gov.uk, Statutory Maternity Pay is only paid for up to 39 weeks. Employees receive 90% of their average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first 6 weeks then £148.68 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. The last 13 weeks (if they decide to take it) will be unpaid (If taking ShPP they only earn the lower amount of 90% of their pay or £148.68).

It is possible for your company to choose to pay more than Statutory Maternity Pay. According to the Money Advice Service, “Some employers might offer occupational maternity pay, sometimes known as contractual maternity pay.”

The Terminology: Summarized

The Rules: What Employees Must (and Must Not) Do

The Rules Around Statutory Maternity Leave

When applying for Statutory Maternity Leave (SML) employees need to tell their employers at least 15 weeks before their due date (or as soon as possible if they didn’t know they were pregnant). You can require them to provide notice of SML in writing, but you must reply within 28 days. They also need to tell you when they want to start their Statutory Maternity Leave and Statutory Maternity Pay.

Interestingly, the people who work for you only qualify for SML if they’re an employee, not a ‘worker’ and they provide the correct amount of notice, but they are always entitled to take SML: It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been working for you, the government allows them to take SML regardless.

Also, somewhat strangely, employees don’t necessarily have to provide proof of pregnancy if they’re asking for Statutory Maternity Leave. They do have to provide proof if they are applying for Statutory Maternity Pay.

The Rules Around Statutory Maternity Pay

For Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)employees are also required to give at least 28 days’ notice, but they also have to earn, on average, at least £118 a week and must have worked for your continuously for at least 26 weeks before the day they have to inform you about their pregnancy (i.e. the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth).

When asking for SMP, they need to provide proof that they’re pregnant. This can be in the form of a letter from their doctor or midwife or an MATB1 certificate. Without proof of pregnancy, they cannot get SMP.

Once they have provided this you must respond within 28 days and tell them how much Statutory Maternity Pay they will receive and when it will start and stop.

However, employers can also decide that employees are not eligible for SMP. There’s a form called SMP1. It has to be provided within seven days of an employee’s request to get Statutory Maternity Pay and you will need to explain why employees are not eligible.

If they’re not eligible for SMP they might be able to get Maternity Allowance from the government instead. This is available to people who are employed but not eligible for SMP, are self-employed, or who have recently stopped working.

This maternity planner, provided by the gov.uk site helps employees work out when they must claim their maternity leave.

Employees Rights While on Leave

Be aware of employee rights while on leave:

  • Employees can work for 10 paid ‘Keeping in touch days’ (KIT), but only if you agree to this with them.
  • Don’t forget that they do continue to build up holiday entitlement and can take any holiday they’ve accrued (built-up) before or after the maternity/paternity/adoption/shared parental leave.
  • They have the right to ask you to consider flexible working. You don’t have to say yes.
  • Employees are also entitled to earn leave in lieu of bank holidays if they are normally entitled to take these as leave in addition to their standard annual leave.
  • They have the right to return if they take paternity leave, only 26 weeks of maternity/adoption/shared parental leave (if that’s taken between both parents), or 4 weeks or less of unpaid parental leave. If the employee takes more leave they’ll still have the right to their job or a similar job (with the same or better terms and conditions).
  • Employees have the same redundancy rights during all parental leave.
  • According to the Citizens Advice Bureau they are also entitled to pay reviews, a pension (this may change at 26 weeks), bonuses (depending on how their bonuses are normally calculated).
  • They have the right to paid time off for any antenatal appointments made on the advice of registered medical practitioners, midwives, or health visitors.

Other Employee Rights that Are Sometimes Ignored

  • Don’t forget about health and safety risks. Pregnant mothers should not be exposed to heavy lifting, standing or sitting for long periods without a break, working long hours, or being exposed to toxic substances.
  • It is also against the law to discriminate against an employee (or prospective employee) because of them being pregnant. This includes asking job candidates questions of a personal nature and ensuring that employees are not being subjected to offensive comments or behavior.
  • ACAS also recommends that there is a place provided for a breastfeeding mother to sit (not a toilet).
  • They also have the right to protection against unfair treatment, discrimination, or dismissal.

Things Employees Must Not Do

  • Employees cannot work for more than 10 ‘keeping in touch’ days unless they want to lose some of their maternity benefits.
  • They can’t take time off for antenatal appointments until they’ve told you about the pregnancy.

Unexpected/Unusual Parental Leave Rules

There are also a few interesting rules relating to parental leave and pay. For example, if a baby dies or is stillborn after the 24th week of pregnancy, employees still qualify for leave or pay. It is a legal requirement that an adoptive parent getting Statutory Adoption Pay must take at least two weeks’ adoption leave although they can’t get SPL (but they might be able to get ‘Statutory Adoption Leave and Pay’ instead).

And the rules around Shared Parental Leave allow parents to take much shorter blocks of leave, if you agree – as long as they take at least one week at a time. For example, they could work every other week during a 12-week block, using a total of six weeks of their Shared Parental Leave. Lastly, if a mother is jailed she can’t get Statutory Maternity Pay. And it won’t restart when she is discharged (although, hopefully, your employees won’t be at risk of this extreme example).

Ensure You Handle Parental Leave Proactively

While having an employee off work to have or adopt a baby can be stressful for employers, it can also be an opportunity for employers to demonstrate their commitment to their employees. A caring, welcoming attitude towards staff goes a long way.

However, regardless of your company’s approach to parental leave – be sure that you keep track of all the relevant documents. You might find that HR document tracking software can be incredibly helpful for your organization, especially to ensure that the rules are followed and documented!


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