SDLP Communities Spokesperson Mark H Durkan has called for an overhaul of the provision of maternity benefits available in Northern Ireland.
He has raised specific concerns around the different policies applied to Maternity Allowance and Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) for Universal Credit (UC) claimants.
Despite both benefits serving the same purpose of enabling women to take time off work to care for and bond with their baby, under Universal Credit regulations only Maternity Allowance is deducted from claimants’ UC award.
Under this policy a single woman on Maternity Allowance can be up to £550 per month worse off than her counterpart in receipt of SMP.
The Foyle MLA commented:
“Becoming a new parent is one of the toughest roles a person will ever take on and a costly one at that, which is why it’s so important that appropriate financial support is in place to give families the best possible start. Over the course of the past month my constituency office has been contacted by several mothers-to-be regarding a significant reduction in their Universal Credit award as a direct result of receiving Maternity Allowance.
“Pregnant women and new mothers are entitled to either Maternity Allowance or Statutory Maternity Pay depending on their employment history, allowing them to take time to recuperate and care for their new baby. Due to the stringent criteria set out for SMP, some women will find themselves locked out of their entitlement for arbitrary reasons i.e. changing their employment or taking sick leave during their pregnancy.
“While the standard rates for both benefits are the same, their treatment under Universal Credit regulations differ drastically. Essentially, SMP is disregarded when calculating a Universal Credit award whereas Maternity Allowance is treated as ‘unearned income’. This means for each £1 received from Maternity Allowance, the Universal Credit payment is reduced by £1. I dealt with one case recently, where a new mother found herself locked out of SMP as she had taken unwell during her pregnancy, requiring time off work. She was subsequently advised not to claim Maternity Allowance for fear that the knock-on effect on her Universal Credit claim would leave her worse off. This young woman was understandably distraught at the prospect of an added financial burden at an already stressful time.
“Single, self-employed women will find themselves most adversely impacted by this policy, arguably a cohort more likely to experience financial difficulty and in need of as much protection as possible. This treatment is not only discriminatory, but it pushes women on low incomes and their children further into poverty.
"I’ve urged the Communities Minister to engage with her counterparts in Westminster to review this policy or at least increase the rate of Maternity Allowance. Changing this grossly unfair policy is a start, but we must also look towards strengthening existing pregnancy grants. Every effort should be made to support low-income families and alleviate some of the financial stress associated with welcoming a new child.”