Poorer expectant mums lose over £4,000 through ‘unfair’ anomaly in benefits | Society

Pregnant women on the lowest incomes are being denied vital financial support during the Covid-19 crisis, according to unions and women’s support groups, who are calling for urgent reforms to universal credit.

An anomaly in the way universal credit differentiates between pregnant earners has created an unfair system, it is argued. Universal credit treats maternity allowance, which is paid to the lowest-earning women and those who are self-employed, as “unearned income”, which means it is deducted from their benefit payments.

By contrast, statutory maternity pay, paid to higher-earning women by their employers, who claim it back, is treated as “earnings”, and is therefore largely ignored when their benefit payments are calculated.

Both forms of payment are supposed to give women financial support at a time when they need to bond with their baby.

Maternity Action, a charity that campaigns on behalf of pregnant mothers, says the inequitable system means some women on maternity allowance who apply for universal credit end up more than £4,100 worse off over 39 weeks of their paid maternity leave than women on statutory maternity pay.

“We do appreciate that the support schemes have been developed in difficult circumstances,” said Rosalind Bragg, Maternity Action’s director.

“However, it would take little effort to resolve the unfair treatment of maternity allowance in universal credit calculations… The financial cost to government would be extremely low, but it would make a massive difference to women and their families.”

Last week, an alliance of 14 unions, women’s rights groups, charities and law firms wrote to Dominc Raab, urging him to take action.

Their letter claims that “the prime minister’s announcement on 16 March that pregnant women are classed as vulnerable led directly to many pregnant women being sent home on sick leave, in breach of existing health and safety law”.

A DWP spokesperson said: “ It is right that a claimant’s award is adjusted to take into account support they are already receiving, including income through benefits.”

But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the imbalance was another example of why universal credit needed overhauling. “Britain’s lowest-paid mums are having financial support unfairly deducted at a time when family budgets are already under stress from a new baby,” she said. “Coronavirus has exposed gaping holes in our safety net.”

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