New mothers want more time with their babies before returning to work, and the TUC says the government can afford to give it to them, according to new research out on Friday (2nd March).
The research, part of the TUC's response to the government's green paper on maternity leave and pay - to be handed in on Wednesday (7 March) - shows that new mothers don't think the current 18 weeks maternity leave is enough.
A group of women surveyed by the TUC welcomed the government's proposal to extend maternity leave to 26 weeks, but some would like to see it increased to a year. The TUC has calculated that the government could help new mothers avoid financial hardship by enhancing and lengthening maternity leave payments to 26 weeks at a maximum additional cost of just £1 billion a year.
But new mothers also say that extended maternity leave will be impractical for many parents if it is not paid properly. The TUC says that maternity pay should be increased by the government to enable more women to spend more time at home with their babies.
The TUC research shows the more pay mothers can keep during their time off, the greater the chance of them taking their full leave. The TUC says that a higher maternity pay bill would not place too big a burden on the State or employers.
The TUC research, conducted by Opinion Leader Research, included in-depth discussions with 20 new mothers who were asked to consider the government's maternity leave proposals and come up with suggestions of their own. 302 mothers of children up to two years old were then interviewed to see which options would make them more likely to take full maternity leave. Over half - 55% - had taken full statutory maternity leave, but one in six (16%) had taken less.
A quarter (25%) of the mothers interviewed said they were very likely to take more maternity leave if the government introduced the option contained in the green paper of 90% of earnings for the first six weeks, followed by a flat rate of £60 for 20 weeks.
But 47% said they would be very likely to take more leave if they could have 90% of earnings for 12 weeks, 60% of their earnings for six weeks and a flat rate of £100 for eight weeks. Unsurprisingly, even more mothers (73%) said they would be very likely to take more maternity leave if they could have 90% of their earnings for the full period.
TUC General Secretary John Monks said: "Giving new mothers 90% of their salaries for six months would only cost the government an additional £1 billion a year, and given that the nation's finances are in such a healthy state, we think that's easily affordable. This should be a priority for the next government. Financial difficulties drive many mothers back to work far too early. This is not good for them, their babies or their employers.
"Any moves to give new mothers a better deal will no doubt be greeted with howls of dismay from employer lobbyists. Better maternity pay is not an additional 'red tape' burden on business, but a right that many sensible employers already offer their female staff. Let's give UK mothers the same financial security that new parents get throughout most of the rest of Europe."
Case studies and comments from focus groups
The current length of maternity leave was criticised by mothers. They do not think that 18 weeks is long enough because of the developmental needs of the child and the emotional needs of the mother.
"I cut short breast feeding because I knew I was going back to work...The government is telling mothers that breast is best...but there's no incentive to stay at home and breast feed."
"I don't think 18 weeks is long enough. Most people are only just introducing solids at that time. You're just trying to get your baby to take solids and then you have to go back to work."
The mothers also found the drop in earnings when on maternity leave very hard to manage.
"To go from 90% of my wage to £60 a week is too much of a sudden drop."
"At the moment I am finding it really hard to cope financially. I'm going onto £60 a week from next month, but my mortgage is £400 a month."
Mothers agree that six months (26 weeks) is the minimum required for statutory maternity pay and leave. They would also like to see a graduated statutory maternity pay solution.
"We thought 90% for the first 12 weeks and then 60% for weeks 13 to 18 followed by a flat £100 for weeks 19 to 26 would be much better."
Other mothers say that pay and employer flexibility is a key factor in the decision to go back to work.
Natalie is on maternity leave and is undecided about whether to go back to work. She is a sales administrator for a car company and before she had her baby was working full time. She needs to negotiate with her employer about whether or not they will allow her to go back part-time. "I'm just trying to weigh up whether I can afford to go back to work. Childcare is really expensive so it might not be worth my while. It would be so much better if companies paid something towards childcare."
She also wishes she could stay off for longer: "It would be much better to take a year off with some money spread over the whole period."
Natasha has decided not to return to work, mainly because she wants to spend as much time as possible with her son, but also because if she returned to her job as PA to a financial consultant, she would want to work part-time. She doesn't believe her employers would agree to it. "There's no way they would allow me to work less hours. Once you're in work, there's lots of pressure and they expect you to be at their beck and call."
Angela had her youngest child two years ago and is on a career break from the Nationwide Building Society. "I got the standard maternity pay - 90% of my salary for six weeks and £60 for 12 more - but am also able to take a complete career break up until my child is five years old. It's great because I know that I can go back to a job with the Nationwide on the same terms and conditions."