The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave Contents

2Current entitlements for new parents

Current entitlements for new parents

7.Generous parental leave and pay, along with access to flexible working and quality childcare provision, are recognised as being beneficial to parents, children, businesses and the wider economy. These policies have been shown to be vital in increasing women’s participation in the workforce and contribution to GDP, and to help close the gender pay gap and allow businesses to retain experienced employees, all whilst allowing families the time and flexibility to bond and spend the vital early months of their babies’ lives as they choose.4

8.The UK has made significant progress in this area, from the early 1970s when leave and pay were not widely available and women could still be fired for being pregnant, to the introduction of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) in 1987, and the expansion of leave and protections made by successive governments since then, including the Employment Rights Act 1996.5 This established maternity leave as a ‘day one’ right, meaning all employees are entitled to it irrespective of employment length, and also introduced rights to adoption and paternity leave.

9.However, as Table 1 illustrates, entitlement to leave and pay varies significantly for different parents and carers, according to their employment status and whether they are birth parents, adoptive parents or other carers. Inconsistencies like these often occur when provisions have developed over time, but these inconsistencies can widen existing inequalities and, in times of crisis such as this, can lead to entire groups missing vital support that is meant to be provided by new and existing safety nets. Our engagement with different groups during this inquiry has highlighted this profoundly, as shown by these responses:

On adoption leave and pay for self-employed workers: “I am about to go on adoption leave (although I don’t receive any pay as I am self- employed) so I am going to try and work from home. This will be impossible really though.”6

On the treatment of Maternity Allowance by Universal Credit: “Maternity allowance (MA) does the same job as statutory maternity pay (SMP) and yet is penalised more harshly through universal credit.”7

On the income provided by Maternity Allowance: “I work for an agency so I am only entitled to maternity allowance of £595 a month. This isn’t even equivalent to the national living wage. I have had to come off maternity leave early due to my husband being newly self-employed and not able to get any government help.”8

Table 1: Statutory entitlements to parental leave and pay

Scheme or entitlement


Statutory Maternity Leave (SML)

Available to employees (but not ‘workers’), regardless of length of service – a ‘day-one’ right.

Leave up to 52 weeks, made up of:

• Ordinary Maternity Leave - first 26 weeks

• Additional Maternity Leave - last 26 weeks

Only the two weeks after the birth is compulsory (4 for factory workers).

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)

Paid for up to 39 weeks. Employees get:

• 90% of their average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first 6 weeks

• £151.20 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks

To qualify for SMP they must:

• earn on average at least £120 a week

• have worked for their employer continuously for at least 26 weeks continuing into the ‘qualifying week’ - the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth

Paternity Leave and Pay

One or two weeks’ pay and leave.

To qualify they must:

• earn on average at least £120 a week

• have worked for their employer continuously for at least 26 weeks continuing into the ‘qualifying week’ - the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Shared Parental Pay (ShPP)

Allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks and pay. They can take leave in blocks separated by periods of work, or take it all in one go.

They can also choose to be off work together or to stagger the leave and pay.

Eligibility is different for birth parents and adoptive parents, and also for the mother and her partner.

Adoption Leave and Pay

Mirror the arrangement for SML and SMP, for adoptive parents who are ‘employees’ rather than ‘workers’.

In addition they may be eligible to paid time off work to attend up to five adoption appointments after they have been matched with a child.

Maternity Allowance

Available to those who do not qualify for SMP, including ‘workers’ and self-employed mothers.

£151.20 a week or 90% of average weekly earnings (whichever is less) for 39 weeks

Subject to a number of eligibility criteria, lower rates available for those who do not qualify for full rate. Is classed as ‘unearned income’ for benefits calculations so can reduce other payments.

Unpaid Parental Leave

Can be taken by parents to look after their child’s welfare, for example to:

• spend more time with their children

• look at new schools

• settle children into new childcare arrangements

• spend more time with family, such as visiting grandparents

Parents are entitled to 18 weeks’ leave for each child, up to their 18th birthday with a limit on 4 weeks a year for each child (unless the employer agrees otherwise). Eligibility criteria apply, including being employed for more than one year.

Time off for family and dependants

Employees are allowed time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant (e.g. spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on them for care).

This leave is unpaid, and not time limited, but must be ‘reasonable’. You can’t have time off if you knew about a situation beforehand.

This table is a summary and does not include all details and eligibility criteria. Full details can be found at

10.Whilst many employers top up parental pay with their own schemes, statutory pay is mostly funded by the state, with employers reclaiming the cost. Table 2 shows the costs of the different entitlements.9

Table 2: Public expenditure on statutory parental pay entitlements

Parental entitlement

Annual cost

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)

£2.55 billion

Maternity Allowance

£425 million

Statutory Adoption, Paternity and Shared Parental Pay

£79 million

Statutory Adoption pay

£23.8 million

Source: DWP, Benefit Expenditure and Caseload Tables 2020, maternity benefits table, HM Revenue and Customs, Great Britain National Insurance Fund Account: 2018/19, HC 14 (2019) p 17, PQ 113235 [on Parental Pay: Adoption], answered on 24 November 2017

Statutory Maternity Leave and Pay

11.When the Government responded to the petition which prompted this inquiry, it stated that:

The UK’s Maternity Leave offer is already amongst the most generous in the World—up to 52 weeks of leave are available, 39 weeks of which are paid—and we currently have no plans to extend it.10

We asked the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, Paul Scully MP, why the Government felt the current offering was already generous, and he told us:

The UK has the longest maternity leave among all the OECD countries. Where we enhance pay as part of the statutory maternity pay entitlement, the rate of pay provided is higher than the international standard. It is 90% of the mother’s average earnings, with no upper limit, but it is provided for a shorter period of time. When you get more weeks of enhanced pay in other countries, the rate of enhancement is not always as generous as that in the UK.

It is also worth noting that, where countries offer longer periods of paid leave, it tends to be funded through employer and employee insurance payments rather than directly by the state.11

While it is true that 52 weeks places the UK amongst the most generous for leave, and for six weeks the pay rate is quite generous, this does not give the full story. Responding to our surveys, many parents told us that they simply could not afford to take the unpaid section of leave (the last 13 weeks), and it was already a struggle for them to survive on the lower rate of SMP (33 weeks at £151.20 per week).12

12.As the Government has no involvement in the unpaid portion of leave there is limited data on uptake of this entitlement, but research commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2008 suggested that less than a quarter (23%) of mothers taking maternity leave took the full 52 weeks, and only 45% took 40 weeks or more.13 It is unsurprising that a link was noted between income and likelihood to take longer leave, with those with higher maternal and partner income being more likely to take a longer period of leave.

13.It appears then that current entitlements are only generous to those who can afford to use them. This point was made repeatedly by those we asked for views on current maternity arrangements. One survey respondent told us that:

My husband and I are both key workers working for the police. We therefore cannot work from home. We cannot afford to be on unpaid leave so I have to return to work after nine months’ maternity leave. I could stay off work for a further three months to take the full twelve months maternity leave but as the final three months are completely unpaid we can’t afford for me to do this.14

Another said:

I have chosen to take 9 months maternity as this is paid leave. I have the option to extend my maternity leave by 3 months but this would be unpaid. We could not afford 3 months with no second income as my husbands’ income does not cover the bills. I am stuck between the choice of the safety of my family or being homeless. A choice I believe I shouldn’t have to make.15

14.In a 2019 report on family friendly policies, UNICEF used four measures to rank 41 different high- and middle-income countries. These included the full-time equivalent of paid maternity leave, which for the UK works out as 12 weeks and meant the UK was ranked 34 out of 41 countries. UNICEF also considered paternity leave provision and enrolment in childcare, which is seen as beneficial for educational and development outcomes. When all four measures were considered, the UK only ranked 28th out of 41 nations.16

15.The Government’s response has argued that the UK’s maternity leave offer is already amongst the most generous in the world. Although up to 52 weeks leave is generous compared to other countries, the amount of maternity pay is not the most generous in the world. While we accept that other more generous schemes are often not funded by the state, it remains the case that many new mothers in the UK can’t afford to take their full leave entitlement. Successive governments have not examined systematically enough the scale of take-up of the full maternity leave available, and reasons for not taking their full entitlements. This would better enable us to consider the suitability of current arrangements. The Government should capture data on the uptake of parental leave, as well as pay, so that any future review of parental leave arrangements can consider the extent to which parents from all groups are able to use their entitlements.

Maternity Allowance

16.While it is clear that maternity leave and pay for employees are not without their limitations, maternity arrangements for self-employed workers can be even more challenging. The charity Pregnant then Screwed told us “self-employed mothers already face a number of disadvantages compared to their employed peers”, that self-employed mothers are already likely to suffer reduced incomes after having children, and explained a number of the limitations of Maternity Allowance compared to schemes for employed people:

Unlike their employed peers, self-employed mothers on maternity allowance are not allowed to do any work beyond their 10 keeping in touch days, making it difficult to retain clients while on mat[ernity] leave. Research by Parental Pay Equality in 2018 showed that only 20% of self-employed women were back to their pre-baby earnings by the time their child was 2, compared to 26% of employed mothers working full-time by the time their child was 2.17

In families where both parents are self-employed, only the mother can claim maternity allowance—there is no paternity leave or shared parental leave for families where both parents are self-employed. This means that the primary carer role almost always falls to the mother, so even mothers who were the higher earner or want to go back to work earlier often don’t have this option.18

17.There is also a disparity in the treatment of Maternity Allowance and SMP when it comes to Universal Credit, further penalising self-employed mothers and those on lower incomes. Maternity Action explained this problem in their written evidence to the Committee:

Under the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, Maternity Allowance is treated as ‘unearned income’ and is deducted pound for pound from any Universal Credit award, whereas Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) is treated as ‘earnings’ and is largely disregarded under the Work Allowance and 63% taper. This inequitable treatment of Maternity Allowance can result in women losing out on Universal Credit altogether, leaving them up to £5,000 worse off over 39 weeks of maternity leave than women in the same circumstances who qualify for SMP and claim Universal Credit.

In 2019, more than half of the some 60,000 women granted Maternity Allowance also applied for Universal Credit, and in the current circumstances the number of low-income women who fail to qualify for SMP and end up on Maternity Allowance is likely to increase substantially.19

The unequal treatment of two schemes designed to do the same thing—provide support to new mothers during their maternity leave—is causing real hardship. An Early Day Motion (EDM) signed by 110 MPs from across the House calls for this “anomalous injustice” to be remedied by amending the Universal Credit Regulations 2013.20 The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was also asked about it in the House of Commons on the 4 May, and agreed to look into it, but no action has been forthcoming21 It should cost only £45 million to address this anomaly, once Universal Credit has been fully rolled out.22 This represents less than 0.07% of the £65.5 billion that the Department for Work and Pensions are forecast to spend on Universal Credit and legacy equivalents in 2020/21.23 As a matter of urgency the Government should consider whether Maternity Allowance should be considered as earnings in the same way as Statutory Maternity Pay and should not lead to deductions from Universal Credit.

Adoption pay and leave, special guardians and neonatal leave

Adoption and special guardianship

18.The disparity in entitlements is also especially acute for self-employed adoptive parents or other carers. There is no equivalent of Maternity Allowance available to adoptive parents. For special guardians, there is no statutory entitlement to either pay or leave, whether they are employees or self-employed. Both can apply to local authorities for allowances, but there is no statutory right to support. Despite a Government-commissioned review in 2016 that highlighted this disadvantage, no action has been taken to remedy this.24

19.For years Adoption UK and others have been campaigning for equality for adoptive parents who are self-employed.25 Since 2016, the Petitions Committee has received four petitions about this issue; however, these have only received a small number of signatures and not been eligible for a response from the Government or consideration for debate.26 It is clear that this is an issue that affects only a small number of families, but that does not mean that it can be ignored. Not only could a lack of paid adoptive leave or an adoption allowance cause hardship to new adoptive parents, it appears to be discriminatory compared to the rights of birth parents and could be a deterrent to self-employed people who are considering adoption. We also heard that over 50% of special guardians are forced to give up work to be able to spend time settling a child into its new family, as they have no entitlement to statutory leave or pay.27

Neonatal leave

20.Whilst most parents get to spend the first weeks of their parental leave at home bonding with their babies, for those whose children are born prematurely or sick, this precious time may be spent in neonatal units or travelling long distances to be with their children. This is an acutely stressful time for parents, made worse by the knowledge that every week spent in hospital is one lost from their leave. We heard from the charity Bliss that some parents, especially fathers, have reported spending the entirety of their parental leave in hospital.28

21.The Government has recognised this issue, and recently announced plans to introduce neonatal leave, to cover up to 12 weeks when a baby is receiving neonatal care, and this is very welcome.29 Sadly for the families of the 300,000 babies who will spend time in neonatal care in the next three years, it is not expected to be available until 2023, and the Minister was unable to commit to bringing this date forward.30 Josie Anderson from Bliss told us:

We were absolutely delighted that the Government have recognised that current parental leave laws are inadequate for families who have a neonatal experience. This unprecedented situation calls for some unprecedented action, and providing a short-term emergency measure and some access to extended leave and pay would really help to support families at this time.31


22.Parental leave and pay are not unique in having different provisions for employed and self-employed people, and this is just one area of a complex benefit system. It is however apparent that many of the inequalities are not a reflection of differing circumstances, but more of an oversight by successive governments. In the case of self-employed adoptive parents, and all special guardians, they are getting less support than others. That the current entitlements have been added over a number of years may explain some of these disparities, but it does not remove the challenges posed. There are some discrepancies in the current provisions for parental leave that should be addressed: these include provisions for neonatal leave; self-employed adoptive parents and special guardians. Benefits for self-employed adoptive parents should be equalised to those of other self-employed parents, and parental leave and pay provisions should be extended to special guardians.

5 Employment Relations Act 1999, Schedule 4

6 Annex 1

7 Annex 1

8 Annex 1

9 Responsibility for parental pay is split between departments, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) taking the cost of SMP and Maternity Allowance, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) leading on Adoption, Paternity and Shared Parental Pay.

10 Government response to e-petition 306691, Extend maternity leave by 3 months with pay in light of COVID-19

11 Q75 (all references to oral and written evidence in this Report refer to evidence reported under HC 252, The Government’s response to Coronavirus)

12 Annex 2

14 Annex 2

15 Annex 2

18 Pregnant then Screwed (GRC0022)

19 Maternity Action (GRC0023)

20 EDM 421 (2019–21), Tabled 04 May 2020 signature count as of 23 June 2020

21 HC Deb, 4 May 2020, col 426 [Commons Chamber]

22 This estimate has been calculated by estimating the increased annual cost of Universal Credit, after full rollout, if Maternity Allowance was treated as earned income, as opposed to unearned income.

23 Office for Budget Responsibility, Economic and Fiscal Outlook March 2020, Table 3.18, p102

24 Adoption UK (GRC0018)

25 Adoption UK (GRC0018)

27 Adoption UK (GRC0018)

28 Bliss (GRC0010)

29 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Neonatal leave and pay: Good Work Plan: Proposals to Support Families: Government Response, March 2020

Published: 6 July 2020