Is full-time paid maternity leave in the UK one of the lowest in Europe?

CLAIM: The provision of full-time (equivalent) maternity pay in the UK is among the lowest in Europe.

CONCLUSION: ACCURATE. In an OECD report, the UK ranked 9th lowest of 33 European countries for “full-rate equivalent” paid maternity leave. Including home care leave (childcare), the UK ranks 4th lowest in Europe.

On 29 April 2021, Councillor Martin Reilly tweeted about a motion he had submitted to Derry City and Strabane District Council, which:

“Notes that the current provision for full-time paid maternity leave here is one of the lowest compared to countries across Europe and the OECD…”

What is the difference between maternity leave and maternity pay or “paid maternity leave”?

Maternity leave is defined by the OECD as “employment-protected leave of absence for employed women directly around the time of childbirth (or, in some countries, adoption)”.

In the UK, statutory maternity leave can last up to 52 weeks (including Northern Ireland).

Maternity pay is received while on maternity leave. However, in the UK, statutory maternity pay is only provided for up to 39 weeks (including Northern Ireland).

How much is maternity pay?

For statutory maternity pay, during the first six weeks of maternity leave, if you are eligible, you receive 90% of your average weekly earnings; for the next 33 weeks, you get £151.97 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).

Eligibility for statutory maternity pay includes having worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks and be earning at least £118 a week. If you don’t qualify, then you may be eligible for maternity allowance (including Northern Ireland).

Your employer may offer its own maternity pay scheme during your maternity leave, with its own conditions.

How does maternity pay in the UK compare?

The OECD compiled a summary table (Excel spreadsheet) of paid leave entitlements available to mothers, across 42 countries.

At 39 weeks, in 2018 the UK was the third highest ranking country for paid maternity leave, behind Bulgaria (58 weeks) and Greece (43). The US (0 weeks), Portugal (6) and Mexico (12) were at the bottom of the table. The EU average was 22 weeks.

What is “full-time paid maternity leave”?

The claim is specific to “full-time paid maternity leave”. In the same report, the OECD observes that payment rates vary across countries. It calculated a “full-rate equivalent” measure, defined as the length of paid leave in weeks if it were paid at 100% of previous earnings.

In our analysis of this claim, we have interpreted “full-time paid maternity leave” as “full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave”.

At 11 weeks, the UK was the 15th lowest ranking among 42 OECD countries for full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave in 2018.

To rank the UK among European countries, we excluded non-European countries from the OECD table (Australia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, and the US).

Of the remaining 33 European countries, the UK was the 9th lowest ranking, as shown in the following table. Ireland was the second lowest (6.9 weeks).

Rank Country/
Paid Maternity Leave
Length (weeks) Average payment rate (%) Full-rate equivalent (weeks)
1 Portugal 6.0 100.0 6.0
2 Ireland 26.0 26.7 6.9
3 Switzerland 14.0 58.4 8.2
4 Iceland 13.0 68.2 8.9
5 Denmark 18.0 53.0 9.5
6 Belgium 15.0 63.7 9.6
7 Sweden 12.9 77.6 10.0
8 Turkey 16.0 66.7 10.7
9 United Kingdom 39.0 30.1 11.7

What about home care leave?

Some countries provide employment-protected leaves of absence that follows parental leave, otherwise known as home care leave, childcare or child raising leave. If home care leave is included as “total payments available to mothers”, then the UK ranked 4th lowest (11 weeks), ahead of Turkey (10), Switzerland (8), and Ireland (6). This is also presented in a UNICEF summary table.

Summary

If “lowest” means the lower half of a list ranking, then the UK was among the lowest among the OECD and European countries for full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave. Note that the UK was not among the three lowest ranking European countries.

If the additional payments of home care leave is considered, then the UK was the 4th lowest ranked European country for “total paid leave available to mothers”. This is distinct from the investigated claim of full-time (equivalent) maternity pay.


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