Maternity Leave In The UK: Foodbanks, Debt And Returning To Work Early For Cash

Two new reports have laid bare the stark reality of how much mothers are struggling to financially survive on maternity leave.

maternity leave UK crisis

by Rhiannon Evans |
Published on

Surveys by Maternity Action and Pregnant Then Screwed have revealed the dire state of maternity support in the UK, with mums visiting food banks, racking up debt and rushing back to work before they’re ready to make ends meet.

A survey by Maternity Action of 1,394 mothers who were on maternity leave between January 2021 and December found that half (49%) were buying less healthy food to save money and a quarter had gone without food to feed their children. 71% worried ‘a lot’ about money during pregnancy or maternity leave. A staggering 60% had relied on credit card or borrowed money to make ends meet. And sadly 58% said they returned to work before they were fully recovered from the birth because of financial pressures.

Pregnant Then Screwed’s survey of more than 5,000 mothers who are at least 20 weeks pregnant or have a child under 12 months found 1 in 10 needed to return to work as early as four months because they couldn’t afford to stay any longer. Only 1 in four mums were able to take their fully maternity leave entitlement.

Statutory maternity leave in the UK is paid up to 39 weeks. A mother receives 90% of their average weekly earnings before tax for six weeks then £172.48 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. This is half of the national living wage.

One mother told Maternity Action: ‘I had to go back to work when my baby was only three months old. I am still at work now because we couldn’t afford to live, we had to take a £5k loan to keep us afloat for those three months because maternity pay wasn’t enough.’

Another added: ‘In the end, despite the fact that I couldn’t afford it, I went onto statutory maternity and got 12 months with the baby. We literally food banked it. We survived that way.'

Hannah* told Pregnant Then Screwed: ‘I went back to work just over three months post-partum. I was forced out of work by my previous employer whilst pregnant. There was absolutely no way I could manage to survive on statutory maternity pay, and with no family close by to move in with, there was no other alternative. Then comes the childcare fees - it’s a joke. My little one is now six and I’m still paying off the debt I got into for simply trying to survive back then.’

Sarah* who is self-employed had to return to work after just two weeks told PTS: ‘I took my four-week-old baby to a new pitch meeting with all men, they asked me if she’d stop crying. I had another meeting where they told me not to tell the client I’d just had a baby and I had to pump my milk in the loo.’

An evidence review by Maternity Action also uncovered a series of key factors that makes it hard for mother to have a decent start. The found that the criteria for maternity pay unfairly excludes many women in insecure work, women whose pregnancies were unplanned or unexpected or who have had periods of illness. They found that low maternity pay led women to go back to work sooner than they’d have liked, disrupting recovery, bonding and breastfeeding. Women found that discrimination is common and that at work having a child damages their careers, leading to issues with their mental and physical health.

They also found that women and employers need better information to make sure pay and conditions are in line with the law – and that a lack of affordable childcare along with a lack of flexibility from employers forces many women to leave their jobs after maternity leave or take lower paid part-time roles.

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said: ‘We have some of the lowest rates of parental leave pay in the world. National minimum wage is the legal minimum a person should be paid, yet new mothers are meant to survive on less than half of this amount for 33 weeks, whilst their outgoings remain the same. And, of course, the cost-of-living crisis is exacerbating this issue.

‘The perinatal period is critically important to the health and well-being of a mother and her child, and I think we should all be deeply concerned that due to severe hardship, we are now seeing a degeneration and a degradation of this vital period.

‘Simultaneously, and I would argue not unrelated, NHS data from August 2022 - March 2023 showed an 8% increase in new mothers accessing support for mental health services on the NHS. We have also seen an increase in infant mortality in the UK. Poverty has a significant impact on the risk of stillbirth and death during infancy. Ultimately, It is a false economy to not pay parental leave at a rate at which families can survive and thrive.’

Ros Bragg, Director of Maternity Action, said: ‘The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated long-term underinvestment in maternity pay and benefits.  We should be protecting the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies and not putting them at risk through financial stress. Statutory maternity pay is just 47% of the National Living Wage and only 37% of women’s median incomes.  Families cannot make ends meet with the costs of a new baby and this dramatic drop in income.

‘All mothers should be able to afford a healthy pregnancy and time away from work to bond with their baby.  Pregnant women and those with new babies should not be struggling to eat a healthy diet and pay for essentials.’

Maternity Action have made a number of recommendations to government, including…

  • Criteria should be changed so that more women who have zero hours contracts can quality for statutory maternity pay

  • Statutory maternity pay (SMP) and Maternity Allowance (MA) should be raised to at least the level of the National Minimum Wage.

  • Rights and protections at work should be strengthened, including a right to flexible working and family friendly working arrangements.

  • Women should be able to access legal advice and support with benefits entitlements and rights at work through their maternity service

  • The 30-hour entitlement to childcare should be available to families straight after maternity leave

Viv Jackson, Programme Manager at abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, said: ‘Decent maternity pay and benefits should be a priority for the Government, to make sure pregnancy and new motherhood is not synonymous with financial struggle for people on low-to-middle incomes. The rate of inflation is falling, but essentials are still expensive. The recommendations here will help mothers on low incomes, such as those who do not have secure contracts, or who have been ill during pregnancy and after the birth, to have a good start with their babies’.

Rhiannon Evansis Senior Editor at Grazia - she launched and runs Grazia’s parenting platform The Juggle. The unique community is a place for parenting advicelaughs and discussion - and constantly campaigns for working parents. Rhiannon led The Juggle’s partnership with Pregnant Then Screwed, which called for Childcare Change Now - more than 100,000 parents signed a petition calling on the government to review childcare in the UK.

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