Why is it so hard for self-employed women to claim maternity allowance?

After applying for self-employed Maternity Allowance, Annie Ridout was told she’d be entitled to just £27 a week. Fortunately, she knew this wasn’t true so made the necessary phone calls. But other freelancers won’t – and will instead forgo maternity leave….

My third baby is due in a few weeks. I’ve been self-employed through each pregnancy so I know how Maternity Allowance (MA) works. What happens is this:

  • You fill out a long application for the Maternity Allowance you’re entitled to, as a self-employed woman having a baby.
  • After a few months (yes months) you receive a letter saying: Thank you for applying for Maternity Allowance. Your award is £27 per week.
  • If you’re not in the know, you think: errr, what?? Panic. And either decide to contest it or conclude that you’re better off taking no leave. Because who can live off £27 a week.
  • (Though, really, who can live off the £148.68 you were expecting?)

If you decide to look into it, you’ll discover that you simply need to pay national insurance (NI) contributions up front and you’ll then receive the full £148.68 a week for up to 39 weeks.

So when I received my letter awarding me less than it takes to feed my family for two days, let alone pay my bills, I was going to start making enquiries.

Only, the letter says you have to wait 10 days to receive another letter from HMRC giving your the opportunity to pay your NI contributions up-front.

I waited 10 days.

No letter.

So I went online to find a phone number to speak to someone about my Maternity Allowance, as I had applied to start receiving it from 1 August. But there’s no number online; you have to go back to the original letter they sent.

I found the letter, phoned the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and spent way too many minutes pressing in numbers and telling a robot lady my national insurance number to get to the right department.

Once I got through to a person, she said: we don’t deal with this; you’ll have to phone HMRC.

I phoned HMRC and spent another load of minutes tapping in numbers until robot lady relented and put me through to an operator. After explaining the situation and saying I wanted to pay my NI upfront, she said: we don’t take payments over the phone.

She told me I’d have to wait for the letter from HMRC with instructions. The letter I’d been waiting 20 days for already. That hadn’t arrived. I said I wasn’t going to wait for the letter, as the woman from the DWP had said I could resolve this issue by phoning HMRC.

The woman reluctantly gave me the bank details to make a transfer to pay the NI. It included an 18-digit reference number. I asked how much I owed and she said: £38.35. This one payment would then entitle me to receiving the full MA.

I asked how long it would take to be processed, once I’d paid. She said I’d need to phone back in a week, to check my payment had been received. As otherwise, it could take months for the system to catch up. Months. So again, the onus was on me to chase for the MA I’m legally entitled to.

Not only is this an incredibly frustrating process to have to go to, as a pregnant self-employed woman for whom time spent on phone calls equals time away from the work that pays, but it’s also so convoluted that others will give up.

I know of people who’ve been on the brink of giving up, and I’ve explained the ridiculous process in a bid to encourage them to persevere; telling them it will be worth it (just about) in the end. That they’ll pay a small amount and will then receive their full MA.

When the Government make it hard for self-employed women to receive their maternity pay, they decide against taking leave. They figure it’s easier to just carry on working and earning an amount they can actually live off. This leads to burnout. And it’s not acceptable.

On top of this, there’s the fact that while employed mothers are allowed to have a self-employed income flowing in while receiving maternity pay, self-employed women aren’t allowed to work at all – bar 10 keeping in touch (KIT) days.

As a freelancer, you’re only paid when you work. So maternity leave may lead to losing clients. And yet you’re not allowed to work part-time, where and when it’s possible – around looking after a baby – to keep a foot in the door (and earn enough to top up your MA to something you can live off).

I’ve been running online courses which have brought in a decent income meaning I can set aside some money to cover me for a few months. My plan is to use my 10 KIT days to keep the courses running, and have a month or two recovering from the birth.

And then I’ll be back at it. Earning money. Paying my taxes and NI. Contributing to the economy. All while looking after a newborn baby and two older children. Because what other option do you have, when the Government offer so little support?

I’ve recently set up a Ltd company and if I’d done this earlier, and set myself up as a PAYE employee, I’d have been able to claim 90 per cent of average weekly earnings for the first six weeks, like any employee. And then statutory maternity pay after that.

But I didn’t do this in time. And I only know about this because someone told me on Instagram – it was just by coincidence that I’d set up a Ltd that week. This information is certainly not made readily available by HMRC.

Self-employed mothers contribute billions to the UK economy each year and yet if they want to have a baby, they’re dismissed. The rigmarole of applying for MA – and the pitiful amount you’re ‘awarded’ – places too little value on our contribution. It needs to change. Urgently.