Maternity Leave

Women and Equalities – in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 5th September 2013.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield 9:30 am, 5th September 2013

What recent consultations she has had with employers’ organisations on the treatment of women who return to work after maternity leave.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

As part of the consultations on introducing shared parental leave, I have had a number of discussions with employer representative groups and employers, as well as family representative groups, about the issues surrounding women returning to work after maternity leave. Those groups have included the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC and Working Families, as well as employers such as BT and Lloyds.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

As someone who has three daughters, all of whom have children and have had maternity leave, and who have demanding jobs, may I tell the Minister that the Government’s record since 2010 is not good? Recent independent reports show that family incomes and women’s incomes have declined, and we still have not addressed the thing that prevents the most talented people in our country from getting back to work—the cost of child care. When will the Government tackle that?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the cost of child care, and the Government are well aware of the challenge that it poses for working mums and dads. That is exactly why we have announced a new tax break of £1,200 per child per year for child care costs. Just this week, we have extended the free early education entitlement to two-year-olds, and it will double next year to include the most disadvantaged 40% of two-year-olds. There is also an additional £200 million in universal credit. We recognise the important point he raises and are acting on it.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Will the Minister do everything she can to encourage employers to keep in touch with their employees during maternity leave? That would improve many of the challenges that exist.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Ensuring that employers and employees stay in touch during the period of maternity leave can ease the return to work and make the process work better for everybody involved. The “keeping in touch days” that were introduced fairly recently—within the last few years—as part of maternity leave have helped in that. We are of course considering how that successful initiative can be extended further through the shared parental leave that we are introducing.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Home Secretary, Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

I know that the Minister will have every reason to agree with me about the importance of supporting maternity leave for working women. We wish her well. However, she will also be appalled by the figures that one in seven women on maternity leave lose their job and half return to jobs that are worse than those they left. Discrimination against someone just because they are on maternity leave is obviously illegal, but the Government have now decided that new mothers who want to take their case to an employment tribunal will have to pay £1,200 to do so. That is the equivalent of nine weeks’ maternity pay. Does she think that will make it easier or harder for new mothers budgeting for a young family to challenge maternity discrimination?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

The right hon. Lady raises a variety of important points, and I thank her very much for her kind words. I agree that maternity discrimination is unacceptable—of course, it is also illegal. Any employer worth their salt would not dream of doing it, but some will. It is important that we proceed on the basis of evidence. I would be happy to look at the analysis I have requested from Slater and Gordon, which I understand did some of that research, because it does not necessarily tally with the figures that also exist which say that 84% of women return from maternity leave to the same job they had before. It is important we get to the bottom of that.

I understand the right hon. Lady’s concern on employment tribunal fees, but it is important to see the whole picture. It is not the case that most women who want to take up a case of maternity discrimination will be forced to pay such a fee. The vast majority of cases can be dealt with well outside the tribunal system. The Government’s employment law reforms have encouraged more cases to be conciliated at an early stage through ACAS. Only a tiny number of cases ultimately get to tribunal—300 went to a hearing last year. Anyone who wins their case has a good chance of having their fees paid by the employer if ordered by the tribunal. In addition, a remissions regime is in place for those who are unable to afford the fees.