Country Information

How Long is Maternity Leave in the UK?

May 10, 2023

More than 120 countries around the world have laws in place to guarantee employees the right to maternity leave, pay, and benefits — but they are not all created equal.

The United Kingdom is one of the countries with the most generous and robust maternity leave policies in the world, offering mothers a long and flexible maternity leave entitlement while helping employers by easing the financial burden. 

If you’re hiring employees in the UK, you’ll need to know which policies to apply if one of them is expecting a new baby. This article will cover everything you need to know. 

Overview of Maternity Leave Policies in the UK

Maternity leave policies in the UK are governed by Statutory Instrument 1999 No. 3312, which lays out the terms and conditions of employment.

UK employees are entitled to a maternity allowance of up to 52 weeks off work and receive statutory maternity pay (SMP) during the first 39 weeks. The first 26 weeks are referred to as ordinary maternity leave, while the last 26 weeks are known as additional maternity leave and can be taken at the employee’s discretion. 

Employees are required to take at least two weeks off after giving birth, or four if they work in a factory. After that, it’s up to them to decide when to return to work, but they must give their employer eight weeks’ notice if they want to change their return-to-work date. 

The earliest an employee can start their maternity leave is 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth. If the baby is premature, leave will start the day after the birth, and if an employee is absent from work for a pregnancy-related illness in the four weeks prior to the week the baby is due (Sunday to Saturday), their maternity leave will begin at that time.

Eligibility for Maternity Leave and Pay

Employees qualify for 52 weeks’ maternity leave if:

1. They’re an employee with an employment contract, not a ‘worker.’ A worker can be someone who is:

  • A self-employed contractor or freelancer
  • Employed through an agency
  • On a zero-hours contract
  • A casual worker.

2. They give their employer the correct notice. Note that notice doesn’t have to be in writing unless the employer requests it.

All eligible employees are entitled to the statutory maternity allowance, no matter how long they have been with the employer, how many hours they work, or how much they get paid.

However, while all employees qualify for leave, not all of them qualify for pay. To be eligible for SMP, an employee must:

  • Earn at least £123 per week on average.
  • Provide proper notice and proof of pregnancy. 
  • Have worked for the employer continuously for at least 26 weeks continuing into the ‘qualifying week’, which is the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth (in other words, 41 weeks of employment before the birth).

SMP begins when an employee goes on maternity leave, including when leave automatically starts earlier due to a pregnancy-related illness or premature birth.

As an employer, you must get proof of pregnancy before paying SMP. Proof of pregnancy can be either a doctor’s letter or a maternity certificate (known as a MATB1 certificate), usually issued by midwives and doctors 20 weeks before the due date.

Eligible employees can receive SMP for up to 39 weeks, as follows:

  • The first six weeks: 90% of their average weekly earnings (AWE) before tax.
  • The remaining 33 weeks: £172.48 or 90% of their AWE (whichever is lower). 
  • If the employee chooses to take 52 weeks of maternity leave, the last 13 weeks are unpaid.
  • Tax and National Insurance must be deducted.
  • The employee will get the same amount even if they’re pregnant with more than one baby.

In the UK, employers are responsible for paying SMP in full — however, they can claim back 92% of it from the government when they file the following year’s taxes. 

If an employee is arrested while on maternity leave, they will not be eligible for SMP or any maternity benefits. If they are discharged during the maternity leave period, it will not restart.

Maternity Rights in the UK

Parental leave laws in the UK guarantee employees certain maternity leave rights, including the following:

  • Employees still qualify for leave or pay if the baby: is stillborn after the start of the 24th week of pregnancy, or dies after being born.
  • During maternity leave, employees are entitled to protection from unfair dismissal, pension payments and rights, pay rises and bonuses, accrued holidays, and any other UK employee benefits, such as gym membership or medical insurance.
  • As an employer, you must continue paying SMP even if you stop trading. 

Additionally, your employees may want to apply for shared parental leave (SPL) and statutory shared parental pay (ShPP). This entitles both parents to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of paid parental leave to share between them. SPL can be taken in blocks or all in one go, and parents can choose whether to stagger it or take parental leave at the same time.

Comply with Maternity Laws in the UK and Globally

Maternity leave policies in the UK protect new mothers and their families and reflect well on your company as one that values its employees. 

Employers that fail to meet local obligations risk losing valuable members of their workforce, damaging their reputations, and facing potential discrimination claims, penalties, and costly tribunal action. 

To avoid the many pitfalls of global compliance, more and more companies are turning to employer of record (EOR) service providers like Remofirst. Our team of legal experts stays informed about ever-changing regulations in over 150 countries so we can help businesses like yours stay compliant. 

For more information on how Remofirst can help you hire and manage employees in the UK, check out our UK country guide.