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Maternity Discrimination

Volume 601: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2015

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy recommended the use of regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall. A digital debate has taken place on Twitter ahead of today’s debate on maternity discrimination. Mr Speaker has agreed that for this debate, members of the public can use handheld electronic devices in the Public Gallery, provided that the devices are silent. Photos, however, must not be taken.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered maternity discrimination.

I am pleased to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and to have secured a debate on a subject that is vital for women and for everyone who is concerned with justice and equality.

I would like to thank constituents who have contacted me about this issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who suggested its suitability for a debate. I thank Maternity Action for its invaluable help in preparing for today, and Parliament’s digital team, which you mentioned, Mr Bailey, for supporting our Twitter debate on this subject yesterday. Most importantly, I thank everyone who contributed their ideas and experiences; I will return to that later. Finally, I pay tribute to campaigners both inside and outside Parliament who have pursued this issue over many years, and I very much look forward to hearing the contributions of some of them this afternoon. I am pleased to have been able to lend my support by securing this debate.

This is the first time we have had the opportunity to debate properly the first set of findings from the research project being undertaken on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Further research findings are to be published in the near future, and that will further inform our understanding of the scale and nature of the issue and how Government choose to respond. However, we cannot do nothing in the meantime. Waiting is not an option and never was, and there are certain steps that can and should be implemented immediately as we set out to end maternity discrimination. This is an opportunity for Members to make that strength of feeling absolutely clear to Government.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern about the scale of the problem and about whether there is a true appreciation of that scale? I refer particularly to the EHRC report, which states that there could be as many as 54,000 mothers a year who are treated so poorly that they feel they have no option but to leave their jobs.

I agree absolutely with the right hon. Lady, and I will briefly turn to some of the report’s findings. The issue is not just the scale of the problem, but the fact that the numbers seem to have increased over the last decade.

It is important to put on record some of the report’s findings. On the basis of interviews with over 3,000 employers and over 3,000 women with young children, investigators were able to conclude, as the right hon. Lady said, that unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever, with an estimated 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers—that is one in nine—forced out of their job each year. They also found that one in five women—as many as 100,000 a year across the UK—reported having experienced harassment or negative comments either because of pregnancy or flexible working. Investigators found that one in 12 women were treated with less respect by their line manager, and one in eight felt that they were treated less favourably in some other way, as a result of their pregnancy. One in 10 women were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments, despite those being absolutely essential for protecting the health and wellbeing of mother and baby, as well as there being a legal right to paid time off for antenatal appointments.

Investigators also found that one in six of the women interviewed reported suffering a negative impact on their health or stress levels because of poor treatment at work. One in 12 women who had attended a job interview while pregnant reported being asked during that interview whether they were pregnant, and finally, two in five women said that they would have liked to work more flexibly upon return from maternity leave, but did not ask to do so as they were concerned that it would not be approved, or that it would result in negative consequences.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing today’s debate. Does he agree that when maternity pay is just £138 a week, there is a disincentive for women to make tribunal claims against the discrimination that they experience, given that they have to pay £250 to submit their application and £950 for a hearing? Having to pay £1,200 is massive disincentive for women to make a claim, but on top of that, it means that employers are more likely to discriminate. Should that area of discrimination claims in the tribunal not be exempt from fees?

The hon. Lady makes a very valid point, and I will turn in due course to tribunal fees and access to justice.

It is interesting to note that despite all the discrimination that I laid out from the report, only one in 12 of those women who raised a concern about their treatment at work obtained legal advice from an external advice provider such as Maternity Action, a law centre or a citizens advice bureau, so there is probably an awareness-of-rights issue, even before we get to the equally important consideration of tribunal fees.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the research found that seven in 10 employers felt that mothers should declare up front in interviews if they are pregnant. Almost three in 10 employers felt that pregnancy put unreasonable cost burdens on the workplace, and a horrifying one in four of the employers surveyed wrongly believed that it is lawful to ask women job candidates about their plans to have children.

The sad fact is that these findings, published in July, probably did not come as a surprise to campaigners. For example, in its 2013 report, “Overdue”, Maternity Action estimated that up to 60,000 women were being forced out of employment because of maternity discrimination. As the research suggests, it is a sad fact that the problem is becoming more, not less, widespread. The number of mothers being forced out of work through maternity discrimination is almost double the figure of 30,000 identified in similar research undertaken back in 2004-05 by the then Equal Opportunities Commission.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) touched on the point that causes some of us the most concern: it is beyond reasonable doubt that certain Government policies have made it harder, not easier, to tackle the issue, by making it more difficult for women to challenge such discrimination. The supply of free legal advice has been severely reduced by funding cuts. Maternity Action’s free helpline now receives 42 times more calls than it is able to answer, and as she said, since July 2013, there have been up-front fees of up to £1,200 to pursue an employment tribunal claim for pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination, which has undoubtedly had a devastating impact on women’s access to justice. In the words of Lord Justice Underhill,

“It is quite clear…that the introduction of fees has had the effect of deterring a very large number of potential claimants.”

It is important to say that not only are fewer claims being made, but it is undeniable that meritorious claimants are being stopped from proceeding.

Those statistics are easy to rattle through, but on their own, they do not give us a proper understanding of the nature of what is going on. That comes only from hearing the very individual stories of women across the UK who endure this discrimination, such as the stories that I was told yesterday during our Twitter debate and by various campaign groups. I heard appalling stories of pregnant women being forced to use different toilets at work, finding it impossible to access their employer’s maternity packages, being told that they had taken too many sick days, or being made to take antenatal appointments during their lunch breaks or on annual leave. The treatment of pregnant temporary workers seems particularly awful, according to the messages that I received.

So what are we looking for by way of a response from Government? Maternity Action, members of the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace and members of the public taking part in our debate yesterday all believe that it is clear that Ministers need to respond with a strong, comprehensive and effective plan of action, including a number of detailed measures.

First, Ministers must send a strong message to employers that there is simply no excuse for flouting the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Perhaps the Government could consider that in their proposals for a new director of labour market enforcement—a post being introduced, rather oddly, under the Immigration Bill. Alongside that, support has to be provided to small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups to assist them with planning for maternity leave, as smaller employers in the private sector were most likely to report difficulties across many areas in managing pregnancy and maternity issues.

Secondly, the Government must develop a high-profile information campaign aimed at improving women’s awareness of their rights, and employers’ understanding of their legal obligations and the business benefits of compliance. Best practice should be benchmarked, and the benefits of best practice, including flexible working, should be highlighted. Too often, the women most vulnerable to discrimination are those who know least about their workplace rights, and that includes young workers, recent migrants and many of the millions of women working in small, non-unionised workplaces. We can put that right.

Thirdly, that general awareness-raising must go hand in hand with a significant injection of funding to the specialist information and advice services that pregnant women and new mothers clearly need to help protect their rights at work. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination presents a massive challenge to women when they are least able to handle the additional stress and financial costs. Too many are unable to benefit from a trade union’s advice and support services, and cannot afford to pay for legal advice.

Fourthly, when women are aware of their rights and have the specialist advice that they need, they must have genuine access to justice. That means getting rid of the employment tribunal fees introduced in July 2013, which, beyond doubt, represent a substantial barrier to justice. We should also consider extending the time limit for claims from three to six months, or even beyond, because during pregnancy or after birth are hardly the time to pursue stressful legal claims.

Once women have access to the tribunal, we must ensure that those awarded financial compensation for pregnancy or maternity discrimination receive the money due to them. It is unacceptable that Government-commissioned research in 2013 suggested that 50% of all awards go unpaid by employers. I hope that, as a starting point, the Minister will agree to meet Maternity Action and the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace. I have barely scraped the surface of this topic; I look forward to colleagues filling in as many of the gaps as possible.

In conclusion, pregnant women and new mothers deserve strong protection and high levels of support. Too many experience the opposite, and discrimination is far too widespread. It is time the Government stepped up to the plate; they must do so now.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I commend the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. I firmly support him, and I think it is important that I do that.

It is a sad reflection on our society that in 2015 we are still discussing matters of gender equality, but any opportunity to improve maternity leave for women is most welcome. I hope that we can have a fruitful debate today about how we can best do that and that the shadow Minister and the Minister will add to our discussion. There have been many welcome advances in recent times and the national consensus is now firmly in favour of viewing maternity discrimination as wholly unacceptable, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, it is imperative that we do not take our eye off the ball and that is the purpose of this debate.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the recent findings of a survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which clearly underline that. Of those surveyed, 11% reported having been dismissed. That figure multiplied across the United Kingdom means that some 54,000 women have lost their job. The problem is not just women losing their job, but the impact on their children and families. Those figures must be taken into consideration and must not be ignored.

The fact that so many mothers have said they were harassed or heard negative comments from their colleagues, bosses, friends or work mates when they were pregnant or returning from maternity leave underlines the issues. One third thought that their employer did not support them willingly during their pregnancy or when they returned to work. Those issues cannot be ignored, but here we are in 2015 addressing them. I am sure that we have moved on greatly, but we need to move just a bit more to ensure that a final conclusion is reached.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is curious that the Equality and Human Rights Commission report says that many businesses find it

“reasonable and easy to implement”

pregnancy and maternity regulations, yet so many women are dissatisfied with the way that works out in practice?

I suppose that that is why we are having this debate today. It seems that not everyone is totally convinced that the changes to the legislation are making a difference. The right hon. Lady is right: the legislation is there and people understand it, but there has been a move away from putting that understanding into practice. That is the issue and perhaps that is also what this debate is about.

It is clear that although we have made great progress and have some fantastic champions of gender equality throughout the House and society, a lot more needs to be done. The right hon. Lady highlighted that. I hope that the statistics mentioned by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East are noted by hon. Members and that we have renewed vigour in tackling maternity discrimination. It is apparent that we have taken our eye off the ball. I hope that we can use today as an opportunity to put on the record the need to come together once again to address the issue. That is the reason for this debate.

Although the study found high rates of discrimination against pregnant women, 84% of employers said they believed that supporting pregnant women and women on maternity leave was in their best interests. It is interesting to hear those figures and the information that the right hon. Lady referred to. There seems to be a clear difference. Either the statistics are wrong or there is an undercurrent that we need to address. In addition, 80% of employers agreed that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave were just as committed to their work as their colleagues. Again, it seems that four fifths of employers understand that when the lady returns to work, she is as eager, keen and enthusiastic as before her baby was born.

A member of my staff is on maternity leave at the moment. I certainly did not view her as being of less value than other staff due to her pregnancy. She is hard-working and has worked for me for some 12 years. This is her second baby in just over two years. She gave birth about three weeks ago and has another few months of maternity leave. I want her back, but at the same time I understand that she has a wee child to look after. For the record, the baby’s name is Esther and she was born at Ulster hospital just a few weeks ago, weighing 8 lb 4 oz. She has a wee sister. Their mother has had two girls in the last two years, so it has been a busy two years for her and for everyone else.

There are no problems in my office when it comes to maternity leave. The law says what we must do and we do it, but we must do it right. In this House, MPs can have a substitute to help and we are lucky to have that opportunity.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is a reasonable and understanding employer. We have arrangements in place in the House that, in the main, support people who work for us and who go on maternity leave. Having a child is a life-changing event for the whole family and the need for more flexible working arrangements after childbirth is often one of the greatest challenges that many women in particular face after returning to the workplace. Should there not be a more proactive duty on private sector employers to recognise the need for flexible working?

The hon. Gentleman brings a wealth of knowledge to these debates and I thank him for his intervention. He is absolutely right to say that private businesses need to do more to ensure that that happens. The system in the House is there for us and it is good to have that, but we need to address the situation outside.

I am not sure whether the figures and statistics that hon. Members have referred to relate to private businesses and other employers, but there is an issue still to address. Perhaps the Minister will tell us her thoughts on that. Although the incidence of discrimination is still relatively high, it is clear that attitudes are changing. We need to see what we can do to deal with the disparity between changing attitudes and changing actions.

I welcome the opportunity to have spoken on this issue in Westminster Hall today. I hope that comments made have been noted by hon. Members. I thank them for their contributions and interventions and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for setting the scene. I look forward to moving forward positively on this issue and others like it.

Order. To give both Opposition spokespersons five minutes and the Minister 10 minutes to respond, I would be grateful if Back Benchers could confine their remarks to about five minutes. I have the authority to put a five-minute curb on speeches if I so wish. I want to allow a degree of flexibility, but could hon. Members bear that in mind?

Diolch yn fawr iawn—thank you very much, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing the debate, which is of course relevant to every family. I also applaud the digital debate initiative; the debate has been interesting to follow on Twitter.

As a former manager in a further education college, I appreciate that the task of dealing with female employees during pregnancy and maternity leave is not easy. It is time consuming and, by its very nature, unpredictable. However, the logical conclusion of being complicit in condoning maternity discrimination is to consent to discrimination against every woman of child-bearing age. Proper support and management of employees during pregnancy and maternity is simply another aspect of effective management. It is what good managers do, and it pays rewards in staff loyalty and skills retention. The fact that this debate is necessary gives the lie to the assumption that equality for women is assured. Women are treated as the equal of men in the workplace only as long as their behaviour mimics the traditional behaviour of men in the workplace, in terms of presenteeism and the subordination of family life to work life.

It seems extraordinary that the first findings of research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission would reveal evidence that so many mothers experience discrimination, even though the majority of employers, as has been said, were broadly in agreement—at least in public—with the law and women’s rights regarding maternity leave. The figures extrapolated from the research’s direct evidence indicate that tens of thousands of women are likely to be suffering discrimination in relation to pregnancy and maternity. An earlier report estimated that almost half of pregnant women in the United Kingdom experienced disadvantage at work arising from the fact that they were expecting a child or taking maternity leave.

I would like to take the opportunity to consider the significance of the report to women in Wales, where 29% of women earned less than the official living wage in 2014. That is partly because a greater proportion of women than of men work part time. Of women working part time in Wales, 43% earn less than the official living wage. The BIS report states that women on low incomes are more likely to report experiencing unfavourable treatment or a lack of support during pregnancy.

Given that for more than two years now, women have been required to pay an up-front fee of £1,200 to take a claim for pregnancy, maternity or sex discrimination to an employment tribunal, that legal advice is unaffordable for many and that the situation is worsening, surely Ministers must face up to the fact that employers are breaking the law and families are suffering as a consequence. That is, sadly, just another example of justice being an optional extra, a luxury item for the wealthy, rather than a shield for the powerless against the powerful. I look forward to the post-implementation review of employment tribunal fees in anticipation that that injustice will be addressed.

While awaiting the review of employment tribunal costs and adding my voice to calls for the publication of an action plan arising from the BIS report, I propose that the impact of shared parental leave and pay should also be reviewed, say in April 2016, following a year’s implementation. I understand that that worthy initiative, whereby parents of newborn babies or adopted children may share between them up to 50 weeks off work, is intended to challenge the assumption that the mother alone undertakes the nurturing responsibilities. The degree to which fathers take up shared parental leave is evidently the rulestick by which to measure the success of shared parental leave. Sadly, it is likely that raising the status accorded by men to nurturing roles will prove to be a critical step towards demolishing long-established maternity discrimination.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this important debate to the Chamber. It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. When I worked as a Unite representative, I was involved in many maternity discrimination cases.

It is approximately 40 years since the first legislation was introduced to protect women from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy. Despite those legal rights, it appears that maternity discrimination is still a significant issue for a number of women. The report recently published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that women returning from maternity leave are even more likely to face discrimination in the workplace than they were a decade ago. The report estimates that about 54,000 UK women may be forced out of their jobs each year simply for falling pregnant. That includes being dismissed outright, being made compulsorily redundant when others in the workplace were not, and being treated so poorly that they had to leave. However, that figure does not account for the women who were self-employed and could not continue, women who were demoted, passed over for promotion, or overlooked for job opportunities that arose while they were on maternity leave, or for training and development opportunities. All those women may have been adversely affected, so the estimate of 54,000 may be just the tip of the iceberg.

For the women who are affected by such discrimination, it can have a devastating impact. I note that some truly shocking personal experiences have been highlighted on online sites. One individual stated that she returned to work only 11 weeks post partum because of pressure put on her by her employer. Another individual stated that she had been placed two hours away from home, and that it was virtually impossible for her to get back to breastfeed her baby. Sometimes discrimination against women who are off with their babies does not fit neatly into legal categories, but it can have the effect of making it impossible for the person to get back to work, and therefore it is discrimination all the same.

In this day and age, any discrimination of this nature is wholly unacceptable. However, statutory maternity rights are worth little if victims are unable to enforce them. As has been described, the two biggest barriers that may prevent women from challenging maternity discrimination are the introduction of employment tribunal fees and the three-month time limit. The statute of limitations on discrimination cases means that individuals have only three months from the point at which they were subjected to any kind of workplace discrimination to lodge a claim. In the case of maternity discrimination, those three months usually come at a time when the individuals are exhausted and lacking in confidence, have their hands full and are trying to adjust both to having a new baby and to getting back to work. For many, it just would not cross their mind to go down the route of contacting ACAS or seeking advice regarding their situation.

The Select Committee on Justice is conducting an inquiry on the effects of the introduction and levels of court and tribunal fees and charges. I want to highlight that the Scottish Government have pledged to abolish fees for employment tribunals when their additional powers are received, thereby ensuring that all employees have a fair opportunity to have their case heard. That includes those who may be suffering maternity discrimination. There is also a need to learn lessons from complaints. About half of employers fail to implement changes following a finding of discrimination, so it is important that recommendations be enforceable against the employer.

In conclusion, research suggests that pregnancy and maternity discrimination continues to be both widespread and deeply entrenched, with a significant minority of employers displaying outdated and wholly inappropriate attitudes and behaviours. That is bad for women and their families, bad for gender equality and bad for our economy. There is a clear need for urgent Government action in this area.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)on securing this important debate. You would have thought, Mr Bailey, that by 2015 much discrimination in this country would have been eliminated. We have had the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, race relations legislation and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005—all introduced by Labour—but maternity discrimination, as mums like me know, and as the research that the hon. Gentleman has laid before us shows, is still very much with us. This discrimination can start in pregnancy, and even before conception, when women of a certain age go for a job interview and are sidelined because they are thought of as potential baby machines who are about to drop.

The increase in the number of women in the workforce from the first world war onwards was meant to bring economic independence, and in many ways it did. We all know, however, about glass ceilings and the fact that women often end up in lower-status employment, such as caring, cleaning and—the thing I did before I came here—teaching jobs. There used to be the idea in the ’80s of having it all, and we should not have given up on that. Women’s caring responsibilities and biological functions, if we are blunt about it, should not preclude their earning a wage.

People have talked about flexible working, and I am proud of the fact that the last Labour Government empowered women to do that. I was one of the first generation to benefit. In reality, however, women are made to feel embarrassed to ask, and many feel unable to do so. The EHRC report found that when mothers were allowed to work flexibly, half reported negative consequences, such as receiving fewer opportunities at work or feeling that their opinion was less valued than that of colleagues. I remember the incredulity that greeted a colleague of mine at a former workplace who had recently returned to work when she asked a male manager if she could have access to a fridge to store expressed breast milk. He could not get his head around that concept at all.

Some of the ways in which maternity discrimination can manifest itself include being overlooked for promotion and not being allowed to go to antenatal appointments, as well the more obvious bullying and harassment. A survey by the TUC found that six in 10 mothers felt sidelined at work as soon as they announced their pregnancy. The discrimination starts even before maternity: four in 10 managers admitted that they were wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and others have pointed out the punitive effects of tribunal fees. The costs add up: £250 just to take the case, and £1,200 in total. New babies are not cheap, when we take into account childcare, kitting out the nursery and all that stuff.

I am dismayed that things appear to be going backwards under this Government. We all know that the austerity cuts seem to be hitting women disproportionately. Women are employed in the public sector in greater numbers than men. Research has showed that some 70% of the losers under the proposed tax credit changes, which may change again, will be working women. To top it all, in my constituency, the maternity unit at Ealing hospital has closed since the election. I think it is a bit sinister that it happened in June, probably for electoral reasons, when it was going to close before that. That is a personal observation.

I only wanted to speak briefly, but I call on the Minister to increase access to justice and strengthen leave for fathers; I echo almost all that has been said. Our Prime Minister suddenly announced last week at Prime Minister’s questions his conversion to feminism. What is going on is illegal; maternity discrimination is against the law, so he needs to act now, in correspondence with his self-definition as a feminist.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and Maternity Action for the work that they have done to bring us this debate today.

I want to talk briefly about the position of women in pregnancy, who are, I suppose, in a position of weakness in relation to their male colleagues in the workplace. We need to do all we can to redress that. During a woman’s first pregnancy, she is not sure how it will be, how she will feel and how her health will be affected. We need to make employers more aware of their responsibilities in that respect. Lots of things can happen during pregnancy, including basic morning sickness, tiredness or complications that may require attendance at further hospital appointments. Women in the workplace should feel supported to attend those appointments, because they are necessary.

I also want to mention women who are having in vitro fertilisation treatment, which can have a difficult impact on women’s health, and which can be very invasive and tiring. Not enough is said about the health impact of IVF, or about the need to attend extra hospital appointments to undergo the treatment, and employers need to recognise those things.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned the storage of breast milk. There are problems with awareness of what is required to support women who wish to breastfeed when they return to work. They may require time away to go and see the baby, if it is very small, or time to use a breast pump to express milk in a space where they feel safe, comfortable and relaxed. An appropriate space that is not a toilet would be good. In debates I had about breastfeeding earlier this year, the point was raised that a lot of employers do not recognise that women need a space that is clean and safe, and a toilet is not that space. For that matter, some breast pumps require a plug. That is a practical issue that employers, particularly male employers, might not recognise or understand. The more education that employers can be given about their responsibilities, the better.

A lot of employers may be well-meaning, and I suppose I can give them the benefit of the doubt. I had a colleague who thought that I might not want to go on a particular committee because I had just had a baby. He did not ask me about that at the time—this was a few years ago—but that assumption was made, without my knowledge until I queried it later. We need to open up employers to speak to the women in their employ and ask them what support they need. Employers need to ask what they can do to retain skills and talent in their workforce by ensuring that women return to work and continue to work, if their job is one that they enjoy. They must be supported at every stage during their pregnancy and thereafter, and adjustments must be made to allow them to continue to work.

In the run-up to this debate, I have been looking at some of the issues that have been raised on the website “Pregnant Then Screwed”, where people can anonymously tell their stories. Some of the stories there are absolutely shocking. It is heartbreaking to read about the bullying, stress and discrimination that women are being put through at what should be a very happy time in their life. Those blog posts make me absolutely furious. There is no excuse for making women feel that way during the perfectly natural process of pregnancy, childbirth and starting a family. Women should feel supported at that time; they should not be made to feel as though what they are doing is somehow wrong, because that is absolutely crazy.

We need to do all we can, as MPs in this House, to make sure that women are supported through pregnancy. We must challenge problems with tribunal fees and discrimination to make sure that women and their families are supported.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this important debate, which allows us to highlight the issues faced by pregnant women in the workplace. Legislation has been in place for more than 40 years to protect women from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy. Since then, maternity rights legislation has been strengthened, protecting women from any unfavourable treatment in the workplace.

As a woman has the right to 52 weeks’ leave and 39 weeks’ statutory pay, and the right to return to work after that time, she has the choice to start a family without sacrificing her career. Although the law in this country has created an environment that is fair, balanced, sensible and manageable for recent and expectant mothers, that is not always how the law is interpreted, and women often experience maternity and pregnancy discrimination. Despite the protection written into law, in practice the facts are less clear, and the evidence shows that the laws are often flouted. Often, pregnant members of the workforce are coerced into agreeing to waive their rights. Unfair dismissals often go unchallenged in the legal system.

A recent report outlined women’s experiences. One woman was given 24 hours’ notice to resign. The boss of another woman assumed that, as she was pregnant, she was unable to cope. Yet another woman commented that she was unable to wear her engagement ring because she was concerned that it would put her future employer off giving her a promotion, or even giving her the job in the first place. One woman said:

“It’s hard to make a stand when you need a salary”.

Those are the experiences of women in the workplace. Although the laws and protections exist, many women are not able—or feel they are unable—to access and make use of them. With half the workforce likely to fall pregnant at some point in their career between the ages of 16 and 50, it is high time that our society recognised the deeply entrenched and outdated situation that many women face in their employment. Women who choose to balance work and family face huge inequalities.

A report published this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in conjunction with the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that instances of unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination have slightly worsened over the past decade. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned, the findings are that the scale of the issue is huge: figures indicate that 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers are forced out of their jobs. However, the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace indicates that the figure may be closer to 60,000 women. This equates to one in nine women being forced out of work for choosing to have a child. Of the women surveyed, one in six reported suffering a negative impact on health or stress levels due to poor treatment at work. Of course, existing pressures are only exacerbated by pregnancy and maternity discrimination. How does a woman with fluctuating working hours and an unstable employment contract defend herself against a discriminatory employer?

Hundreds of thousands of women employed in social care, childcare and hairdressing have indicated that they were employed on zero-hours contracts and in unstable forms of employment. As such, they were offered little security in their employment and were therefore unable to challenge the discrimination they faced in the workplace. It is our job to flag up the widespread societal issues that have led to this situation. We must ensure that our laws are fit for purpose; that is not the case at present, in the case of legal aid for maternity discrimination cases. The supply of free legal advice has been severely reduced by funding cuts and the abolition of almost all civil legal aid. I mentioned that recently at Women and Equalities questions, and I am pleased to hear that the matter will be reviewed, so I will not take this point any further.

For any women to progress in their careers, it is important for us to smash the gender pay gap, tackle child poverty and deal with some of the real societal issues. It is impossible for any change to come into effect without the support of Ministers. We need to send a strong message to employers that there is simply no excuse for flouting the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and we must ensure improved access to justice by abolishing employment tribunal fees. As things stand, we are damaging families, diluting gender equality, and doing no favours to the economy. However, this will not be resolved simply through legislation. We need engagement and provision across services and Departments. I urge the Minister to take action, to meet with Maternity Action and others, and to indicate when the report will be published that addresses these concerns.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Five minutes is barely enough time to do justice to a situation in which one in nine mothers feel that they are forced out of work. Maternity discrimination is bad for women and their families, for gender equality and for the economy. The incidence of maternity discrimination is alarmingly high, and there are clear indications that the situation is getting worse.

TUC research in 2014 found that six in 10 mothers felt sidelined at work as soon as they announced their pregnancy, and four in 10 managers admitted that they were wary of hiring women of childbearing age, so it comes as little surprise that advice lines, such as Maternity Action’s helpline, report that they are receiving 20 times more calls than they can take every day. I was privileged to hear the testimony of Aisha, a new mother who contacted the Labour women and equalities team recently to talk about the situation she faced when she revealed to her employer that she was pregnant. I do not have time to go into much detail, but her manager did not do a risk assessment, which led to Aisha being hurt at work, as she suffered from symphysis pubis dysfunction and pulled muscles easily. She turned to her colleagues for assistance in doing her job, because she was scared of losing it. In the end, her employer reduced her hours. She said to me:

“I feel that he discriminated against me because I am a female of childbearing age and he could never understand what I went through while working for him or suffering during my pregnancy.”

Thankfully, she went on to have a successful pregnancy, but no expectant mother should ever have to go through what Aisha experienced. However, the Government are making it harder for people like Aisha to access justice.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a point about the increase in tribunal fees at a time when women do not have very much disposable income—when they are on statutory maternity pay and have the expense of a new baby. I raised that issue during Women and Equalities questions on 15 October, and the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities said that she would look into the matter. Will the Minister guarantee that the findings and recommendations of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the EHRC will be taken into account as part of the review of tribunal fees?

The current situation is completely unacceptable. We must not accept the status quo. In addition to abolishing tribunal fees, as I mentioned, a good starting point would be a commitment from the Minister that the Government are taking the findings of BIS and the EHRC seriously and, following the final report, will publish a comprehensive plan to address the policy recommendations stemming from that report. It is vital that the Government engage with mothers in developing a strategy to end maternity discrimination. It is therefore extremely disappointing that, to date, Maternity Action has not been given a date to meet the Minister; I ask the Minister to meet it.

To address pregnancy discrimination, we must know the scale of the problem. Will the Minister commit to calculating the overall cost to the economy of unlawful and maternity discrimination in the workplace, and require employers to publish return-to-work rates identifying how many of their female employees return to work after having children, and how many are still in post a year later?

The TUC and the Fawcett Society have identified paternity leave as one area that could be improved, as only 55% of new fathers take time off in the baby’s first two weeks. The Government’s impact assessment of the introduction of shared parental leave estimates that only 8% of men will use it. Will the Minister commit to reviewing how paternity leave provisions could be strengthened? It is likely that women will remain discriminated against if they change their working patterns following pregnancy unless flexible working options, such as job shares, part-time working and compressed hours, become more widespread. Will the Government look into giving employees the right to request flexible working from day one of employment? Finally, will the Government work with employers to ensure that they learn lessons from complaints? About half of employers fail to implement any changes following a finding of discrimination.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this important debate. Let me be absolutely clear from the outset that pregnancy and maternity discrimination, whether at work or when seeking access to services, is unlawful and completely unacceptable. We have all been shocked by some of the experiences highlighted in the joint Government and EHRC interim research report on this problem in the workplace and by the stories we have heard via the blog and, indeed, today such as the story of Aisha, which was raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). Those stories reflect badly on the employers concerned.

When the interim report was published in July, I was horrified that one in eight women reported that they felt that they had to leave work as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave. It is clear that far too many women feel that they face unacceptable treatment in the workplace, causing additional stress and difficulties at what, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) quite rightly said, should be an exciting and happy time for their family.

The Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), rightly said that it is not difficult for employers to understand, implement or comply with the legislation. The report shows that most mothers feel supported by their employer—four in five mothers said that their employer supported them during pregnancy, and three in four of those returning to work said that their needs as a new mother were met. It is encouraging that, despite the bad stories, most employers, such as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), embrace their legal and moral duties to their employees. It is good news that most women have a positive experience during and after pregnancy.

It is also important to recognise that the vast majority of employers believe it is important to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave. More than four in five employers feel it is in the interest of their business to do so, and of course it is. Although it is reassuring that the vast majority of employers recognise the important contribution made to their organisation both by pregnant women and by mothers returning from maternity leave, it is still nowhere near the 100% that we want. So many mothers do not have a good experience, and we must do all we can to ensure that all employers see the benefits to their organisation of having a diverse workforce.

To address the problem effectively, we need to understand the causes and extent of pregnancy discrimination in our workplaces, which is why in 2014 the coalition Government commissioned an extensive research project into perceived pregnancy and maternity discrimination. It is the largest research project of its kind undertaken in Great Britain, and it is interviewing more than 3,000 employers and 3,000 employees. The final report, which will come out later this year, will tell us what issues women face, who is most at risk and which types of employers are most likely to receive complaints about discrimination. We will use that information to decide our next steps to ensure that both employers and mothers are aware of, and act on, their legal obligations and rights.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East is right to say that access to the correct advice is a key priority. In the meantime, the Government have ensured that support is available both to mothers and employers on their rights and responsibilities. The EHRC has produced guidance in the form of frequently asked questions to help employers to understand their legal obligations and to provide suggestions for good practice in managing pregnancy, maternity leave and return to work. The EHRC has also produced a toolkit for employers, with a stock of pre-prepared letters, checklists and ready-made policy templates to make administration as simple as possible.

More generally, some £49 million has been provided to the EHRC, ACAS and the Equality Advisory and Support Service as part of the Government’s commitment to support both employers and employees. The EASS helpline is available for those who may have a discrimination issue, often outside the workplace, such as women who feel that they have faced unlawful restrictions on breastfeeding in public. The helpline provides in-depth free advice and support, helping individuals to solve their problems informally, and covers England, Scotland and Wales. More than 80,000 individuals have been helped to date.

ACAS provides advice both to employers and employees on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, including specific guidance on breastfeeding at work. ACAS is also developing guidance and products in relation to gender pay reporting and the menopause. It has also published new guidance on equality and discrimination, equipping people with the knowledge and ability to take action to avoid discrimination and to respond to it if it occurs. Of course, we must not forget the excellent work of organisations such as Maternity Action and Working Families to support employers and women while pregnant and on maternity leave.

Employment tribunal fees were introduced to cut the burden on taxpayers and encourage parties to seek alternative ways to resolve their dispute. It is not right that hard-working taxpayers should pick up the entire bill of some £71 million for employment disputes and tribunals, but to protect the lowest paid workers, there is a system of fee remissions under which fees may be waived in part or in full for those who qualify.

We have also taken steps to divert people away from potentially acrimonious tribunal hearings where possible, which is important. Under the new early conciliation scheme, people must notify ACAS of their intention to lodge an employment tribunal claim, and they are then offered an opportunity to settle their workplace dispute without going to court. The scheme has already been used by more than 80,000 people in its first year, and 56% of complaints in the “suffered a detriment or unfair dismissal—pregnancy” category were settled through the ACAS early conciliation process. ACAS services are free of charge, making it a cheaper, quicker and less stressful option for all concerned.

On 11 June 2015, the Government announced the start of the post-implementation review of employment tribunal fees. The review is well under way and will be completed in due course. Among other things, the review will consider the impact of fees on particular groups, including women. The EHRC report will be taken into consideration. The review will broadly consider how successful the policy has been in achieving its original objectives, which will include, so far as possible, whether the fees have had any differential impact on people with protected characteristics and the types of cases they bring.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned compliance and tribunal award payments, which are clearly unacceptable and are something that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently evaluating. We want everyone in our society to fulfil their potential, and we cannot afford to waste the talents of half our population. Addressing discrimination is only part of what we are doing to ensure that women are able to make the most of the opportunities available to them. Our ambition is to end the gender pay gap within a generation. There are now more women-led businesses than ever before, a record number of women in work, and the gender pay gap is at an all-time low. Do not take that as complacency; there is more to be done. That is why we will require large employers to publish information on the difference between men and women’s pay, and last week the Prime Minister announced that we will ensure that large employers regularly report on bonuses as part of that gender pay reporting.

I appreciate the Minister’s point about large employers, but the vast majority of people work for smaller companies with fewer than 250 employees. Has she considered that those people will be equally affected?

Yes, absolutely. I ran a small business for more than 20 years from the age of 19, and I think a culture change is required. We need to secure that change in large companies that can afford to do the gender reporting and can afford the posh websites on which to report it. We hope that will bring about a culture change that filters down, but we will keep it under review. Nothing is off the table.

The measures build on our support for working families. From September 2017, we will double the amount of free childcare to 30 hours a week for working parents of three and four-year-olds, which will be worth around £2,500 a year. Some 1.8 million families could also benefit from the new tax-free childcare scheme from 2017, which will be worth up to £2,000 a child. We will extend shared parental leave and pay to working grandparents. The policy, when implemented in 2018, will support working parents with the cost of childcare and help the 2 million grandparents who have given up work, reduced their hours or taken time off to help with childcare. That is in addition to the families who are already benefiting from shared parental leave, which was introduced earlier this year. We need time to assess the impact of shared parental leave, which will of course be reviewed in due course. We need a cultural change so that the chaps understand that they have an equal responsibility for childcare. We will also introduce a national living wage.

The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age or background, is able to fulfil their potential, which is why we are determined to address pregnancy and maternity discrimination, wherever it may arise. This issue affects us all. It is not only utterly reprehensible that women feel they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, but it represents an unacceptable loss to our country’s productivity. Valuable employees are being misused. I was interested to see the digital debate on Twitter yesterday, using #MothersWork. Many useful points were raised in that debate, as well as in today’s debate, and they will all be taken into consideration. I am more than happy to meet Maternity Action, and I am pleased to see so many colleagues from both sides of the House agree that maternity discrimination is an important issue. I look forward to reading the final report.

I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. Many people who have spoken are far more expert on the issue than I am and have been campaigning on it for far longer. We heard from the right hon. Member for Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the discrepancy between the many employers who seem to find planning around maternity leave straightforward and the far too many who still find it a challenge. Perhaps we need to share best practice more widely. We heard from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) that it is not always easy to manage, but the motivation is there, and that employers can be rewarded with skills retention and employee loyalty.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke eloquently from her own professional experience, which is invaluable in such debates. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) discussed the fact that discrimination starts even before conception, a point worth emphasising. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke poignantly from personal experience, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said that we are in the process of improving legislation, but we need practice to match up with implementation.

I am grateful to the shadow Minister and the Minister for their contributions. We are moving towards some degree of recognition that more must be done and of the reasons why we need to tackle the problem. I am grateful that the Minister has recognised the problems that we face. We still have a long way to go, but I am grateful that she is going to meet Maternity Action. I had better finish now, or I will run out of time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered maternity discrimination.

Sitting adjourned.