Employers could consider withdrawing enhanced maternity pay for new mothers after the introduction of new laws on shared parental leave, law firm Howard Kennedy has warned.
The shared parental leave regulations, which became law today (1 December) and will apply to any baby born after 5 April 2015, effectively allow parents to share maternity and paternity leave equally in the first year of their new born baby's life. The laws also apply to couples adopting a child.
Many large companies have already said they would offer the enhanced pay and conditions to both mothers and fathers, but the cost could be too great for smaller businesses, said the law firm.
The company surveyed its clients in October, and found that 50% had not yet decided whether to extend the enhanced pay to both mothers and fathers.
Louise Gibson, an associate in the employment law team at Howard Kennedy, said: "We would not be surprised if some employers now retrench or withdraw enhanced maternity pay from new mothers rather than extending it to a broader category of employees (including new fathers), thus avoiding the risk of discrimination claims from fathers and reducing costs at the same time."
She added: "It would be an unfortunate and unintended consequence of what is at its heart a piece of legislation aimed at supporting parents as child carers."
Currently, women's statutory rights include up to 39 weeks' paid maternity leave (90% pay for the first six weeks and then £138 per week); 52 weeks' leave total; the right to return to the same job after their leave; the right to request flexible working; protection from dismissal due to pregnancy or leave; and time off to attend antenatal appointments.
Employers can also choose to enhance these basic rights by increasing the flexibility of the leave's start and end dates; paying more than statutory pay; providing a return-to-work bonus as an incentive to return; allowing mothers to work part-time, and giving them preferential consideration over other employees' requests.
The new laws mean that men and women can share these existing rights between them, including pay.
The changes in legislation come four years after the last additional paternity leave regulations came into force in 2011, which allowed fathers to take between two and 26 weeks' additional leave (on top of the statutory leave of two weeks) provided they had worked for their employer for a total of 26 continuous weeks previously.
Those regulations also stipulated that fathers should be afforded the same protection as mothers while on leave, including not being at risk of redundancy.