Britain says MEPs' plans will double maternity leave bill
Britain warned on Tuesday that new laws to be voted on by the European parliament next week will more than double the cost of maternity leave for its hard-pressed taxpayers.
European lawmakers are examining changes to maternity and paternity provisions that London says will cost up to an additional 2.4 billion pounds each year (2.75 billion euros, 3.8 billion dollars).
They will also vote on a new budget for the EU next year that finance minister George Osborne has already said would represent a "600-million (pounds) increase in our gross contribution to the EU."
Lawmakers in the British parliament in London will on Wednesday debate how best to oppose the EU increases at a time of national cuts to public services partly demanded by a Brussels bid to slash public deficits.
The European parliament will vote on whether to rewrite a 1992 law providing 14 weeks leave for all women at minimum levels of sick pay and raise it to 20 weeks on full pay, with an additional two weeks leave for fathers also on full pay.
A British government spokesperson said "the amendments put forward by MEPs on maternity and paternity pay would cost us up to 2.4 billion pounds.
"To put this into context, we currently spend around two billion pounds a year on maternity pay -- meaning the cost would effectively double."
Current British rules grant six weeks on 90 percent pay, with another 33 weeks on a flat rate of 123 pounds per week and 13 more unpaid, backed by state benefits.
The European Commission, which proposes and enforces laws across the 27-nation bloc, wanted a less generous regime.
It proposed to raise the allowance to 18 weeks, but letting states set ceilings for pay levels.
EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, in a letter to the parliament dated September 30, warned that the costs of fully-paid, 20-week maternity leave over a 20-year period would reach "up to 40 billion euros for France and 57 billion euros for the UK."
The British coalition government is planning to bring forward a so-called sovereignty bill this year which could allow Britain to challenge EU law's competence.
London is fiercely resistant to "red lines" on fiscal sovereignty -- decisions that cost taxpayers money -- being breached, although the European Union has control over health and safety and gender equality legislation.
Britain is also railing against EU parliamentary moves to introduce a direct tax on citizens to the bloc's budget.
It already rejected a compromise halving a 2011 increase offered by EU states -- Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden also voted against -- and wants a "cash freeze."
But an amendment to be voted on also calls for negotiations on "new own resources" as a "full part of the overall agreement on the 2011 budget."
France, Germany and the Netherlands have already come out against the imposition of direct EU taxes on citizens -- a hot issue awaiting radical proposals on future EU funding from budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski on October 19.
One EU diplomat said the parliament, if it could not secure extra money, wants "more powers by stealth."
The chairman of the parliament's budget committee, French MEP Alain Lamassoure, confirmed Tuesday that in exchange for keeping costs down, it wants states to commit to "open a taboo subject."
Ideas that have been put forward include raising EU VAT percentages, or a bloc-wide carbon tax.
"The current system for financing the EU budget is dead," Lamassoure said, criticising the "totally obscure, totally unequal" methods through which contributions are calculated.
Lamassoure pleaded with states not to behave "like 27 Margaret Thatchers," in reference to the former British prime minister who secured billions in annual rebates back in 1984 -- a payback that Lewandowski has also said should be revisited.
© 2010 AFP