Responding to the Women and Equalities Committee’s August report on workplace pregnancy, Business minister Margot James has announced the Government intends to discuss new proposals to give pregnant and new mothers greater protection from workplace discrimination.
Ms James said:
“We are determined to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination and a key part of that is making sure new and expectant mothers are supported and treated fairly by their employers.
“While most businesses abide by the law, some do not. There should be zero tolerance of discrimination against pregnant women, or women who have just given birth, that’s why today we are committing to making sure new and expectant mothers have sufficient protections from redundancy.”
The August report had called for a German-style system banning employers from making women redundant during and after pregnancy, except in specific exceptional circumstances, and had also called for a “substantial” cut in the £1,200 fee for women taking a pregnancy-related discrimination case to an employment tribunal and extending the time limit for making a claim from three to six months.
Neither of these proposals have been adopted, however and the Government has simply stated it plans to take further consultation to discuss the best way to improve protection for pregnant women and new mums.
Unions, solicitors and experts in the field were unhappy with the response.
‘Still not confronting the elephant in the room’
The TUC’s Frances O’Grady said:
“We are pleased the Government has finally published its plans for tackling pregnancy discrimination. However, ministers are still not confronting the elephant in the room – the impact of employment tribunal fees.
“Bad bosses will continue to get away with discriminating against new mums as long as it costs up to £1,200 to take a pregnancy discrimination claim.”
‘Disheartening lack of detail or new ideas’
Chairman of the WEC commitee, Maria Miller was unhappy with the response, calling it a ‘missed opportunity’, and the committee expressed concerns that the time limit for bringing a tribunal claim had not been extended to six months.
She welcomed the Government’s “assertions that it takes the issues seriously” but added that there was a “disheartening lack of detail or new ideas”. She said:
“We urge the Government to look again at the specific steps we put forward – new protections are needed, particularly for women who have casual or zero-hours employment arrangements, for ensuring that risks in the workplace for pregnant women are addressed, and for guarding against discriminatory redundancies after women return to work.”
‘Response is a mix of defending the unacceptable status quo and kicking issues into the long grass’
Shadow women and equalities secretary Sarah Champion said:
“The report from the cross party Women and Equalities Committee gave specific recommendations on how to empower working mums and tackle maternity discrimination in the workplace. The Government’s response is a mixture of defending the unacceptable status quo and kicking issues into the long grass.”
‘Tribunal fees and time limits are real barriers to justice being accessed’
“It is all well and good for the Government to say that pregnant women and women on maternity leave trump all other candidates for suitable alternative employment and have the right to return to the same job or a suitable alternative at the end of their maternity leave, but the reality in a redundancy situation where a woman has been earmarked for redundancy because of her childcare responsibilities, is that suitable alternative employment is never offered to her because she will be told that none exists and her role no longer exists.
“Some unscrupulous employers bank on the fact that a pregnant employee or new mother in such circumstances will not have the time, energy or funds to bring a claim in such circumstances. The Government needs to enable vulnerable women and indeed parents in these circumstances to be able to access justice. Having to pay Employment Tribunal fees at a time when many mothers are only receiving statutory maternity pay or even where their pay is enhanced, it is very often less than their full rate of pay, and the short three month time limit in which such claims need to be brought, when a tiny baby is dependent on them for all their basic needs, must be properly addressed and resolved swiftly by the Government, as these are real barriers to justice being accessed.”
‘Lawyers only see a small percentage – most women don’t take action’
“Many women feel they are pushed out of the workplace after having a child or announcing their pregnancy. Most of these women do not take legal action. As lawyers, we only see a very small percentage of those that face discrimination. Despite the existence of a raft of anti-discrimination legislation many of my cases involve women who return to work having had a baby only to be dismissed for ‘redundancy’.
“Often we are able to establish that the ‘redundancy’ was manufactured, simply to get rid of that particular employee. In these situations, it is often the case that the employer makes damaging assumptions about the employee’s commitment to the business or concerns that she will now want to work flexibly.
“A redundancy ban is necessary and long overdue. With organisations spending so much time and money on recruiting and retaining staff, it’s doesn’t make sense for businesses to discriminate against mothers. It haemorrhages talent and in the war for talent, organisations need every bit of ammunition to help attract the right people. If that means companies adopt policies and frameworks that help to retain working mums, then they should be adding these policies to their armour.”
‘Baby steps towards progress that are woefully inadequate’
Jo Swinson, chair of Maternity Action, said:
“The damning evidence of the scale of maternity discrimination has been with Government for almost a year. These baby steps towards progress are wholly inadquate.
“It is great that the Government is considering better protections for the 5,000 women each year who are unfairly made redundant. However this does nothing for the almost 50,000 women each year who are dismissed or forced to resign from their jobs because of discrimination.
“The Government’s forthcoming guidance on gender pay gap reporting should recommend that companies evaluate retention rates for women one year after returning to work following maternity leave. This is a critical step in prompting employers to evaluate their own performance and take preventative measures.
“Employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 make justice unaffordable for the vast majority of women. Removing these fees must be a priority for ending discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers.
“Weak health and safety provisions result in one in every 25 mothers leaving their job due to unsafe working conditions. We also urgently need to re-instate individual risk assessment and create an effective enforcement regime.”