Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection)

– in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 8th July 2020.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 3:12 pm, 8th July 2020

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit redundancy during pregnancy and maternity leave and for six months after the end of the pregnancy or leave, except in specified circumstances;
and for connected purposes.

We have record numbers of women in work, more women studying STEM— science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects to the highest levels and more women being given the opportunity to take up roles in every sector of society. Women will have a central role in this country’s recovery from covid19, but we have a clear opportunity for the Government to level up, because despite the real legal protections, set in law by this place, designed to outlaw discrimination against pregnant women and new mums, the Government’s own data show that more than 50,000 women a year feel they have no choice but to leave their jobs when they are pregnant. The routine use of non-disclosure agreements mean that the reasons women leave their jobs can be, at best, opaque, even when analysed through third party research, but we do know that about one in 20 are made redundant.

Anyone who has ever been a parent will know that pregnancy and the period after the birth is a time when, for most of us, money is a huge concern. Securing a new job, because you do not have one, could be impossible because of the obvious need to take maternity leave. Finding and starting a new job, when meeting the needs of a new baby should be of paramount concern, is in practice extremely challenging. Taking the decision to leave a job, at that point, is not a decision most women would plan for voluntarily, based on their own choice. The data shows that women forced out of their jobs during this period of their working life most often have to downgrade their jobs and their income, often to low-paid, part-time work that is well below their skill levels. This is not through any notion of “choice”—that argument of old is, thankfully, losing credibility in most people’s minds—but through sheer financial necessity, with all the ensuing productivity issues for the nation as a whole. As a result, we see a far greater gender pay gap for women in their 40s and 50s of up to 25%, with a resulting pension penalty on top of that.

Given our legislation, it is wrong that so many women should be fearful of losing their jobs simply because they are pregnant. That is why I am introducing this Bill today. It would put in place an effective new law to protect pregnant women and new mothers from this fate, helping to keep them in the labour market, which is good for them, their families and the economy.

The challenges facing pregnant women and new mums have been even more acute in recent months, and any economic shock that follows covid-19 could well be the first that impacts women more than men. There are reports that the number of women seeking legal advice regarding discrimination has increased fivefold since the lockdown. A study by PwC in May found that 78% of those who have lost their jobs as a result of covid-19 are women. A report from the London School of Economics found more women are likely to lose their jobs in the coming months because of which sectors are most likely to be hit. We heard about that from the Chancellor earlier.

The past few months have cast a worrying spotlight on the attitudes of some UK employers towards pregnant women and new mums, and their willingness to contravene existing redundancy laws by allowing pregnant women and new mothers to be the first in line for dismissal. Some pregnant women have been told to go home on sick pay when they are not allowed to work because of health and safety considerations, rather than on full pay as is set out in law. I make no excuse for the fact that the Bill is designed not only to make the specific point about pregnant women, but to sharpen employers’ focus on this aspect of employment law and their treatment of the women in their workforce.

Too often, I hear that better protection for women will reduce their attractiveness to employers because of the costs associated with things like maternity pay. That is wrong in and of itself, but it also shows how little attention is paid to these issues, because smaller employers recover more than 100% of the cost of statutory maternity pay when they make those claims. It is therefore an argument that has long since been resolved.

The real cost of the failure of the current system is that the Government forgo taxes and have to pay increased benefits to the tune of up to £17 million a year. A report by McKinsey found that encouraging women’s participation in work and ensuring that they are protected from discrimination could add up to £150 billion to the UK economy—something we need at this time. If the Government are to reboot the economy and if my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s plan for jobs is to work as he envisages, we need to use all the talent this country has to its fullest and address the ongoing issues around productivity. I do not for one minute pretend that this is easy, and it is likely that the reported levels of discrimination are the tip of the iceberg.

Many right hon. and hon. Members will have seen cases from women in their own constituencies in recent weeks similar to the young woman I spoke to who had been made redundant. Her ordeal began when her employers asked how many weeks pregnant she was. She was furloughed in March for two days and then, just three hours before she was entitled to statutory maternity pay, she was made redundant. It was devastating.

I initially presented this Bill in 2019, on the heels of the consultation by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that looked at extending the existing protections to six months after maternity leave has ended. The current protections mean that if a woman’s job is at risk of redundancy during her maternity leave, she must be offered any suitable alternative vacancy that is available. She should in theory be given priority, but both the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the Maternity Action helplines show that, in practice, that is woefully inadequate. Employers continually confuse their legal obligations, ignore them or insist that women on maternity leave compete for an alternative post when they are giving birth, have just given birth, or have been out of the workplace for many weeks.

Extending the current provisions to six months would simply entrench a system that we know does not work. My Bill proposes a much simpler and cleaner protection, drawing on proposals from the Women and Equalities Committee. The provisions that I propose are also currently used in Germany. The major change that the Bill would make is to offer pregnant women the sort of protection that is long overdue. Currently, for a woman to challenge her employer’s unlawful behaviour she would have to go to an employment tribunal—not an attractive proposition for any employee, particularly not one who is looking after the needs of a newborn baby. Employers are well aware that less than 1% of women subject to maternity discrimination seek remedy at tribunal.

My Bill would strip out the complexity of the protection available to women. We will be able to tell a woman that from the time she is pregnant to six months after she returns to work she cannot be made redundant unless the employer is closing down the business or ceasing work in that area. Women who experience a stillbirth or miscarriage would similarly be protected for up to six months from the end of their pregnancy or any leave that they were entitled to. The woman’s employer would be able easily to comprehend their duty too.

There are more than half a million pregnant women in the workplace every year, and the Government should be applauded for creating an environment where we have record numbers of women in work, but we need to update our laws to reflect that change, to address the challenges that women routinely face and to ensure that we level up the workplace for all women.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mrs Maria Miller, Sally-Ann Hart, Nickie Aiken, Mrs Flick Drummond, Virginia Crosbie, Caroline Nokes, Karen Bradley, Angela Crawley, Sarah Champion, Jeremy Hunt and Stephen Timms present the Bill.

Mrs Maria Miller accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 158).