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Discrimination Against Pregnant Women and New Mothers Persists

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Last November, Maternity Action* launched a report in Parliament on unfair redundancies for pregnant women and new mothers. Maternity Action is a UK charity committed to ending inequality for pregnant women. Citing statistics that 1 in 20 pregnant women or new mothers are made redundant during pregnancy or maternity leave, the charity called on the Government to take the action to which it committed early in 2017.

The evidence

Workplace redundancy in pregnancy or maternity leave is not a small issue. Each year, over 500,000 women become pregnant in the workplace. A series of research and reports have been published on the issue:

  • Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published in 2015 showed that pregnancy and maternity discrimination had become worse since similar research was carried out in 2005 by the Equal Opportunities Commission. 
  • The EHRC followed up its initial research in a report to the Government setting out its recommendations to deal with such discrimination in March 2016.
  • In August 2016, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee (the Committee) issued a report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee Report on Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

In particular, the Committee recommended that:

  • Employers be required to carry out an individual risk assessment when they are informed that a woman who works for them is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding.
  • Employers be required to provide "additional protection from redundancy for new and expectant mothers" and called on the Government to "implement a system similar to that used in Germany under which such women can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. This protection should apply throughout pregnancy and maternity leave and for six months afterwards. The Government should implement this change within the next two years".
  • The Government should:
    • - Implement an easily accessible, formal mechanism for pregnant women to compel their employer to deal with workplace risks appropriately when concerned about their own or their baby's risks;
    • - extend to workers (which includes casual, agency and zero hours workers), after a short qualifying period;
    • - extend to workers the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments within the next year;
    • - protect pregnancy and maternity rights after the UK's departure from the EU (Brexit);
    • - give women a hand-out on their pregnancy and maternity-related employment rights early in their pregnancy;
    • - flag-up benefits and other sources of information to pregnant women; 
    • - provide practical support and advice on pregnancy and maternity issues, including training, to Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in particular;
    • - introduce incentives and disincentives to encourage greater compliance by employers (for example, paying a higher rate of Small Employers' Relief when the relevant employee is still in post 12 months after returning from maternity leave);
    • - extend the time limit for new and expectant mothers to bring claims in maternity and pregnancy discrimination cases. 
  • The take-up of advice should be monitored to ensure adequate resources are in place. There should also be monitoring of the effectiveness of any action taken to tackle this form of discrimination.
  • The Government should set ambitious targets to reduce the level of pregnancy and maternity discrimination within the next two years.

The Government Response

In January 2017, the Government published their response to the Committee's report.

In the foreword, Margot James MP forcefully acknowledge that discrimination against women in the workplace on the grounds of pregnancy or taking maternity leave is unacceptable and unlawful – as well as shocking. She said that:

"We are determined to build an economy that works for everyone. This includes ensuring that pregnant women and new mothers are supported in work, where they have made that choice, and that they are treated fairly.

The legal framework in place to protect pregnant women and new mothers from discrimination is strong. If women are discriminated against because they are pregnant or take time away to care for their baby, they have a legal means of redress. The Committee's report does suggest areas where we could further strengthen existing protections and we make a commitment in this response to review the position in relation to redundancy. As well as ensuring the legal framework is right, we need employers to know their obligations and women to understand their rights. The Government is working closely with the EHRC and business on the Working Forward campaign, designed to make British workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers."

However, since this Government report was published no action has been taken.

Guidance for Employers

MPs and charities like Maternity Action will continue to press the Government to implement the recommendations set out by the Committee.

Employers should ensure they are fully aware of the laws on discrimination and put in place the correct procedures both to protect and to meet the legal rights of their female staff.

Contact

Pregnancy and new mother discrimination is something that our employment law expert, Susan Mayall, comes across frequently.

If you are an employer and want to ensure that procedures are in place to avoid such discrimination, or, if you are employee and have been discriminated against, get in touch with Susan Mayall by telephone 0161 684 6948 or by email or make an enquiry.

Sources

Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) inquiry into pregnancy and maternity discrimination - Select Committee report.

Government response to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination (web accessible version). 

*To read more about the work of Maternity Action, click here

 

Please note that the information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Pearson Solicitors and Financial Advisers Ltd or any of its members or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.

This blog was posted some time ago and its contents may now be out of date. For the latest legal position relating to these issues, get in touch with the author - or make an enquiry now.

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