I beg to move,
That this House has considered maternity discrimination.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this subject for debate and to my co-sponsors of the application, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). But for long-standing constituency commitments, the latter would have been keen to take part in the debate. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to a former Member of this House, Jo Swinson, who in her role as a Minister in the previous Government commissioned the report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that forms the backdrop to the debate.
This issue cuts to the heart of the debate about gender inequality. Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is a major societal failure. If we are to achieve sustained progress towards women’s economic and social empowerment, achieving compliance with the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination and extending workplace cultures that support women during their childbearing years is now urgent.
Serious people who have studied this issue in greater depth than I have believe that as a country, we are heading in the wrong direction—according to some, back towards the 1950s. I came to the issue relatively recently as friends and constituents have informally reported their experiences of discrimination as mothers and mothers-to-be. One constituent who had worked for the same firm for 11 years struggled to get any sympathetic hearing for her request to come back part time after giving birth, even though her maternity leave had been covered by two new members of staff, allegedly on a temporary basis. She was eventually told that she would have to come back full time or not at all, before finally being told that her job had disappeared.
Other cases brought to my attention include that of Woman A, who, when she returned from maternity leave, found her maternity cover presenting her with a new team structure, with her reporting to him. Another woman suffered a traumatic miscarriage at work at 12 weeks, and she was met with anger from her manager rather than empathy.
In the case of a woman on secondment, her manager tried to tell her that she was not entitled to her higher duty pay when she was on maternity leave, which understandably caused her considerable distress. In another case, a woman was about to go on maternity leave, and her manager told her that her maternity cover would be in place permanently; they would stay when she came back, so the two of them would be doing the same job. In another case, a woman’s employer learned she was pregnant and gave her project portfolio to another director, effectively making her redundant.
Those are all personal examples that bring to life some of the shocking findings in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s research. The numbers it produced are stark. Its research was based on interviews with more than 3,200 mothers and more than 3,000 employees. It found that overall, three in four mothers—77%—had had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave and/or return from maternity leave. If scaled up, that could mean that as many as 390,000 mothers a year experience some form of discrimination.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this extremely important topic to the House. Does he agree that the potential funding cut to the Equality and Human Rights Commission is of significant concern, given the research and work it does and its vital importance to all societies across the UK?
The hon. Lady draws attention to an important issue that I am sure the Minister will want to take up. I sympathise with the point she makes.
It is worth saying that the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recently published research is not its first such work in this area. When it first commissioned research back in 2005, 45% of women reported experiencing discrimination, so it is extremely worrying to find that the situation facing mothers-to-be and new mothers has worsened so dramatically.
Speaking as an employer of someone who has had two children in the last two years, I think it is important to recall that our employees, who ultimately are employees of the House, have rights and protections in their jobs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whenever we hear cases of those who are not given those rights, that shows the real need for stronger legislation, regulation and monitoring to ensure that everyone gets what my employees have through their employment by me and the House?
I will argue that although there is a need for some legislative change, the major requirement is cultural change. In that regard, there are a number of things that the Government could do to help.
It is worth coming back to the EHRC’s research findings. It pointed out that about one in nine mothers reported that they had felt forced to leave their job, which included those being directly dismissed and made compulsorily redundant and those treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave. About half the mothers who had submitted a request for flexible working said that it resulted in negative consequences for them at work. Potentially, as many as 150,000 mothers a year could be affected. One in 10 mothers were discouraged from attending antenatal opportunities, which could mean 53,000-plus mothers a year. The right to time off to attend antenatal appointments is vital to ensure that women can access the care they need early in their pregnancy and get continuous assessment and advice during pregnancy.
It is welcome that the report shows that the majority of employers were positive about managing most of the statutory rights relating to pregnancy and maternity and recognised that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave, as that increases staff retention and creates better morale. However, 70% of employers surveyed said they felt women should declare up front during recruitment if they are pregnant—surely a recipe for further discrimination if ever there was one—and 27% felt that pregnancy put an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace.
There can be long-term effects on a woman’s career if she has a baby. According to the TUC, poor treatment at the time of pregnancy or maternity leave can have long-lasting consequences for a woman’s future employment and pay. About a quarter of women do not return to work after maternity leave, and only a minority of those women have made a personal choice to become stay-at-home mothers. Women are more likely to consider stopping work altogether if they experience ill treatment during pregnancy or maternity leave. Discrimination at work can cause stress, anxiety and depression, which in turn can have a long-term effect on the health of a woman and her baby.
We have a strong legal framework to promote family-friendly workplaces. What is lacking at the moment is leadership to change attitudes to pregnant women on the ground in workplaces. I hope the Government will lead a high-profile, ongoing campaign to change attitudes in the workplace. Government-led campaigns down the years have led to significant change. One thinks of the difference we see now with gay relationships—the work of Governments of various parties has led that change. One thinks, too, of action down the years on drink-driving and to promote the use of seatbelts and action that has radically improved road safety. Government-led campaigns can make a significant difference in workplaces and among wider society, and such a campaign is clearly needed now on maternity discrimination.
As I will explain shortly, women knowing what they are entitled to is not sufficient on its own to ensure that they can exercise their rights, but access to information is an essential first step. Maternity Action has called for all women to be given a hard-copy leaflet at their first antenatal appointment, outlining their maternity rights at work and signposting them to other key sources of information and advice. The leaflet would also include a tear-off sheet for women to give to their employers to ensure that they too are aware of their employee’s rights. I understand that the Government have committed to reviewing the existing guidance and the accessibility of information for employers. Perhaps the Minister will update us on the progress of that review and respond specifically to Maternity Action’s suggestions.
Maternity Action has raised the concern that it receives 30 times more calls than it has the resources to answer, prompting the question of how much more needs to be done to ensure that women seeking advice and information on their statutory rights can get the help they need. As I said earlier, access to information is the first step to ensuring that women can enforce their rights, but access to advice and justice is a necessary further step in many circumstances. According to the EHRC’s research, less than 1% of women who believe they have experienced maternity discrimination have made a claim to an employment tribunal.
In June last year, the Government launched a review of the impact of employment tribunal fees. Thirteen months later, we are still waiting for the results, but the numbers already point in a significant direction. Pregnancy-related discrimination cases fell from 1,589 in 2012-13 to just 790 in 2014-15. Sex discrimination cases fell from almost 19,000 to almost 5,000 over the same period—a 76% drop. So although the evidence from the EHRC’s research suggests that maternity discrimination is increasing, the number of women accessing employment tribunals to enforce their legal rights is falling. Indeed, the Select Committee on Justice recently criticised the delay in concluding the review, and its review of court and employment tribunal fees recommended that special consideration be given to women who allege maternity and pregnancy discrimination.
Along with the financial barrier to pursuing a claim, many of the women who took part in the EHRC’s research reported that the three-month time limit for lodging an employment tribunal claim was a significant barrier to accessing justice, as they simply were not in a position to jump through all the hoops associated with putting in a tribunal claim while they were new mothers. The EHRC has specifically recommended that the time limit be extended to six months.
The Minister will not be surprised at my disappointment that the only recommendations that the EHRC made that the Government have not accepted relate to employment tribunal fees and time limits. Will she at least update us on when the results of the Government’s review will be published? Action is urgently needed to ensure women’s access to justice to enforce their rights, particularly when they are pregnant or new mothers.
Employment tribunals should act as the final backstop to enforce women’s maternity rights, but we should surely do everything we can to ensure that things do not reach that stage and that discussions between employees and their employers are approached in a constructive rather than antagonistic way. The EHRC’s first recommendation to the Government was that they work in partnership with the commission and business leaders to develop a joint communications campaign underlining the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent and experience of pregnant women and new mothers. I look forward to hearing from the Minister exactly when and how that will happen.
One key element of supporting pregnant women and new mothers is supporting employers, so that any health and safety risks for expectant mothers can be identified and effectively managed. The EHRC found that one in five employers that had identified risks took no action, and one in five mothers ended up leaving employment because of the risks involved. Too many pregnant women today worry that they are being put in a position of having to choose between their job, their health and the health of their unborn baby.
The excellent trade union USDAW has carried out research among its members and found that employers did not carry out risk assessments for seven out of 10 women. Many USDAW members do manual work stacking shelves or lifting heavy items in warehouses or at checkouts. Such examples underline the importance of making progress in developing support for employers, so that they can access all the information they need about maternity and paternity rights and entitlements in one place. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how the Government are encouraging employers to recognise the health and safety needs of pregnant women and new mothers.
The EHRC’s research also demonstrated that much more needs to be done to support women when they return to work and to give stronger rights to flexible working. Roughly 70% of the women who took part in the research requested some form of flexible working arrangement on their return to work. However, half the mothers who had their request formally approved felt that they had experienced unfavourable treatment as a result, and one third said that they felt uncomfortable asking for any additional flexibility or time off.
The TUC has done research in this area, too. It suggests there is a significant motherhood pay penalty. By the age of 42, mothers in full-time work earn 11% less than women in full-time work who do not have children. Women who leave their job during pregnancy or who do not return to their job after maternity leave, whether because they have been unfairly dismissed, because of inadequate health and safety procedures or because of inflexible working patterns, often find it very difficult to get back into work at all. There is a clear need to help employers think through how and why they should create a family-friendly workplace. Will the Minister advise us of what steps are being taken to encourage employers to offer different forms of flexible working?
As the EHRC has said, women are still far more likely than men to work part time, but more needs to be done to make flexible working the norm not only for women but for men too, so that all parents are better able to balance their career and family responsibilities, rather than feeling that they have to choose between the two.
I welcome the steps that the previous Government took to introduce shared parental leave, and I am interested in the Minister’s assessment of how that has worked to date. The evidence from other countries that have implemented similar schemes suggests that fathers are much more likely to take up leave that has been designated as father’s leave rather than shared and transferable leave. If we are to see a cultural shift to more family-friendly workplaces, it is crucial that opportunities are opened up for women to progress at work and for men to care for their children. One important step might be to uprate the amount of paid leave for fathers. It would be good to hear the Minister’s initial thoughts on that.
The EHRC’s research has demonstrated the importance of building up a long-term evidence base on maternity and pregnancy discrimination, so that we can better understand how we can tackle it. The TUC has suggested that employers be required to analyse and publish information on how many of their female employees return to work after having children. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken towards reporting on the gender pay gap; that seems an ideal opportunity to gather more information on how employers are supporting their employees through pregnancy and maternity leave.
It is important that employers continue to evaluate their own internal practices and, crucially, their retention rates for pregnant women. It would be instructive to know how many women are still working for their employer one year after returning from maternity leave, for example. Tribunals should be given the power to make recommendations that an employer change its practice when a finding of discrimination is made, so that other women are protected from similar treatment in future.
I have focused so far on how we can better ensure that existing maternity and paternal rights can be upheld, but I want to suggest an additional area for the Government to consider in extending such rights. My constituent Kathryn Stagg is a campaigner on breastfeeding, and I have spoken to her about the problems that many mothers encounter in that area when returning to work. Going back to work is often the first time that a mother will be separated from their baby for a prolonged period. It can often be challenging for mothers who wish to continue breastfeeding to do so, particularly if there are no nursery facilities at or near their workplace. One in five women who have stopped breastfeeding say that returning to work influenced their decision, and half say they would have liked to continue for longer. A number of countries, including the USA, have enshrined in law the right to breastfeed and to express milk, and I urge the Minister to look closely at whether a similar right would be beneficial and appropriate for mothers in the UK and their babies.
There are many examples of good businesses supporting pregnant employees and supporting mothers in their return to work, but overall it appears that we are going backwards. Discrimination is almost twice as bad as it was 10 years ago. The legislation appears to be progressive, but attitudes in the workplace need to change. It is surely the Government’s responsibility to lead the charge, change minds, and ensure that pregnant women and new mums are valued, respected and encouraged at their place of work. This debate gives us the opportunity to speak for women who have experienced maternity discrimination and tell them, “You are not a burden or a troublemaker, and you are entitled to have your rights enforced and respected.”
I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for so ably introducing this important debate. I also thank the EHRC, which provided an important research base. The hon. Gentleman took us through that very capably. I join them and the other hon. Members involved in obtaining the debate in saying, with the EHRC campaign, “Power to the Bump”—that is why we are here. Perhaps, Ms Buck, you will forgive me a moment of light-heartedness; it is not my style when speaking in this place to draw attention to what I look like rather than what is up here in my head, and I should not take this approach when addressing any other subject matter, but I think, as the Member of the House who is currently pregnant—I am 28 weeks expecting—it may be helpful if I speak in the debate. As I have said, I would not normally encourage this, other than for the sake of my dear mum. She often watches the debates on screen. I do not know whether the camera can take in the full works, rather than just the face and voice.
Joking aside, I am obviously not the first Member of Parliament to have a child and I hope I will not be the last. This place now has a good and evolving history of Members who participate fully in family life, which is an excellent thing. I do not in any way believe that being a prospective mother makes me a better person, or gives me more of an entitlement to speak, but I believe that Parliament is, collectively, better for having young women in it and young parents who can speak on this subject.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the elephant in the room—this is a matter for all parties and Parliaments—is perhaps our failure to find a solution to the fact that there is still no maternity or paternity leave for elected Members, although there is for Ministers? Because of our electoral systems, none of us has found a solution to the question of what a Member does when they become pregnant or become a parent, and what happens when they must return. For example, in this place we must still walk through the Lobbies to vote.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady on that. There is much to do. Given the developing history that I have mentioned of women and young parents—it is not only women—who are Members here and who have young families that they want to look after, it is high time for a more concerted approach across the House. However, the debate is not only about us; this is but one example of a workplace.
In all that we do and all our legislation, we must start with ourselves. We must look inward to look outward and make the changes at home as we make them in the country.
I will gladly work with the hon. Lady and others on that point. Now is the time to take such a look at our working practices here. I would be proud to be able to contribute a little to that, from my own experience, and perhaps also to bring others together to do it.
I want to make a short speech to provide some reassurance that we have representatives here who could be role models and talk from deeper, more current experience of raising a young family, while dealing with the important issues of discrimination and the legislative questions that follow from that. I want to make two points. First, speaking directly to young parents who may be watching the debate, I will cheekily borrow the very recent words of our freshly appointed new Prime Minister, who said yesterday that
“life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security.”
“I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle.”
I think that is the point we should start from in the debate. I wish the new Prime Minister well in making good on all the aspirations she set out in Downing Street yesterday, and which she will continue to press forward. Our theme in this debate should be that we want to speak for those who may well feel as the Prime Minister described, and who perhaps still need our help, through the right legislative and cultural changes, so that life can be a little less of a struggle as they bring up young families.
My final point is a simple one that relates to something the hon. Member for Harrow West covered briefly—the impact of shared parental leave. Of course it is a point about life after pregnancy rather than maternity discrimination per se—I do not know how specific the hon. Gentleman wants to be about the terms of the debate—but the issue is culturally very important. Shared parental leave gives employers no further justification for making gender-based assumptions about the likelihood that a current or prospective member of staff will be caring for children in the future. It is therefore wholly to be welcomed. I look forward to sharing parental leave with my husband, who intends to take leave after I do. I hope that that will serve as a small working example of something that has the potential to suit families of all shapes and sizes. Like the hon. Gentleman, I want that new legal concept to be used more, and to become a comfortable part of mainstream culture. There should be no gender attached to caring for children. There is no need for it; we have come past that point.
I will close there, but I want to repeat how much I welcome the debate and how important the research base is, and my hope that all of us who speak here can give a little bit of power to the bump.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and those who signed the request to the Backbench Business Committee to secure this important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). I look forward to testing the family-friendliness of this Parliament on Monday, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), as we are both bringing our children down next week. We will see how that goes.
I find it difficult to believe that we in this House continue to have to debate and protest about maternity discrimination. It says an awful lot about the way women and children are regarded in society, and we must all seek to improve the situation through our words and deeds, in this place and beyond. Maternity Action has said
“both pregnancy and maternity discrimination is both widespread and deeply entrenched, with a significant minority of employers holding outdated and wholly inappropriate attitudes.”
It is absolutely unacceptable that 77% of women experience discrimination or negative treatment during pregnancy or maternity, or on their return to work. Maternity discrimination is not a niche issue; it is something that can happen to any woman during pregnancy or while going through the early stages of IVF treatment. Equally, it can happen to people who are adopting, or those seeking paternity leave. It also applies to the period after birth and to breastfeeding, as I was glad to see the hon. Member for Harrow West highlight. There is no explicit legal obligation to provide breastfeeding breaks. One of Maternity Action’s excellent series of cards says:
“While there is no explicit legal right to breastfeeding breaks and facilities at work, employers must meet their obligations to a breastfeeding employee under health and safety, flexible working, and anti-discrimination law. And, not only is it simple and inexpensive for employers to do so, but it brings real business benefits such as increased productivity and staff loyalty.”
I absolutely concur with those sentiments. As someone who has breastfed both children at work, being away from them is very difficult and can be painful and embarrassing.
We need to think of ways to get around that and to support mothers when they return to work. We cannot have women giving up breastfeeding, which is so important to maternal and child health, because their employer will not make reasonable adjustments to allow them to do it. We cannot just accept that that discrimination happens. We must find a way of making that kind of discrimination as publicly unacceptable as any other. Ignoring this important issue leads to the extreme circumstances we saw in the Sports Direct case, in which a woman gave birth on a toilet floor. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the impact on child and maternal health during pregnancy and the early weeks of life can be significant and long-lasting, and we need to think about that when we consider this issue.
It was only recently that we were discussing this issue in this place, in November last year, just prior to the publication of the EHRC report and research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. During that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) made a number of reasonable demands on the Government, which I will briefly repeat. First, he asked that the Government take a key role in ensuring employers are well-informed and clear in their obligations and that smaller businesses in particular are supported; secondly, that the Government do all in their power to inform women of their rights, highlighting best practice and protecting vulnerable groups of women, particularly young women, ethnic minorities, those from other nations who might be unfamiliar with their rights under UK law, agency workers and those in non-unionised workplaces; and thirdly that the information services that support women be well-funded. We cannot rely only on trade unions or websites or on picking things up by chance. We need to fund the services that will actively represent and advise women. Fourthly and lastly, he asked that women be able to access justice via employment tribunals. Since fees were introduced in 2013, there has been a significant and disturbing drop in the number of cases brought. The hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned some of the statistics earlier on, so I shall not repeat them, but it can cost up to £1,200 to make an employment tribunal claim, which can rise to £5,700 if more than one person makes a claim, with further potential costs such as, for example, £1,600 if the decision is appealed.
Those costs represent an enormous barrier to justice, particularly at a time when women are at their most vulnerable. The number of women who actually reach that final tribunal is less than 1%. That is tiny. We need to do much better in ensuring women receive the justice they deserve. At the excellent event earlier on, hosted by Maternity Action, it was highlighted that there can be a gagging clause put in the settlement for women who settle out of court, so they cannot even talk about the experience they have had with that employers. Those employers will get away with that. Fellow women in that company might not know that has happened and other women seeking employment with that company will not be aware it is an employer they need to be wary of.
I am proud to say the Scottish Government are committed to abolishing tribunal fees, which is a significant step. We are not at all complacent in Scotland about the challenges. To that end, my good friend, Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Employability and Training, announced at the end of June that he is going to chair a working group to identify action to tackle this unacceptable discrimination. That group will work with NHS Health Scotland to ensure that work environments are safe and healthy for pregnant women and new mothers and to provide employment rights information for pregnant women at that first contact. The group will also create guidelines for employers to ensure best practice in the recruitment, retention and development of pregnant workers. The Scottish Government also pledged earlier this year to improve public monitoring of pregnancy and maternity under the Scottish public sector equality duty. As might be expected, the EHRC has welcomed that announcement, saying:
“These commitments from the Scottish Government are very encouraging and show the leadership for change that is needed to create a positive workplace that supports pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.”
I will briefly touch on some of the issues of returning to work after pregnancy. I asked on Twitter for people to share their experiences of returning to work after pregnancy. They are fairly typical and depressing. One woman said she had left her stressful workplace when pregnant because it was not worth the hassle to stay, while one commented on the discriminatory attitudes and mindset of her managers. Another woman who had worked for eight years with her employer in a reasonably senior role submitted a request on returning to work after maternity leave to go part time or job share, only to be told it was full time or resignation. She felt she was being asked to choose between her child and her job. Those are by no means the worst stories I have heard and colleagues will no doubt share more. They are very much the tip of the iceberg.
Joeli Brearley, of Pregnant Then Screwed, who is at the back of the room with her gorgeous little baby, has been collecting those examples. I urge the Minister and her team to look at the Pregnant Then Screwed website for those examples because they are absolutely brutal. They must be seen and they must be challenged. I encourage all women who are watching this debate to contact their MP and to contact Government Ministers to let them know it is happening. If we do not know which employers are involved we cannot challenge them and we cannot make change.
I also highlight a man who contacted me about paternity leave. He asked about paternity leave in his workplace, only to be met with the response, “Can we say no to that?” No, they cannot; that is not possible. There needs to be more education about the rights of families in the workplace more widely. I visited One Parent Families Scotland last weekend, which highlighted the treatment of pregnant women and new mothers by Jobcentre Plus. It has identified that women are being forced to come off the benefits they are on and encouraged to start thinking about going back to work. They are asked to attend appointments that are not necessary, but they are being called in anyway. That is something that needs to be looked at more widely.
I also highlight young women, in particular, and the EHRC’s “Power to the Bump” campaign, which is absolutely excellent. It highlights that, among all women, those under 25 are six times more likely to report being dismissed as a result of their pregnancy. Will the Minister reflect on that and see what more specifically we can do to support young women? Young women may not know their rights and may not expect to be pregnant. They might suddenly end up in circumstances in which they are having to make serious choices and perhaps there is something to be put in school curriculums to inform young people of their rights around the issue. There is a bit of a gap there because we are not doing that at the moment. All women should know what their rights are for when that time comes. School is a good place to start with that.
In their response to the EHRC report on maternity discrimination, the UK Government said they are
“committed to creating a strong workforce that is fit for the future. To do this we need to make sure that there are no barriers to everyone fulfilling their potential, enabling pregnant women and new mothers to participate fully if they choose to, and giving employers access to the widest possible pool of talent.”
As has been said, the Government accepted many of the report’s recommendations. However, they notably rejected some of those concerning maternity and pregnancy discrimination, in particular around making changes to the employment tribunal fee system to ensure fees are not a barrier for women experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination. They said:
“It is too soon to consider whether any action is needed here. In June 2015 the Government announced the start of the post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in the Employment Tribunal. This will consider, insofar as this is possible, any equality impacts that have resulted from the introduction of fees. The review is well underway and will report in due course.”
I urge the Minister to bring forward the response. We need to know the Government’s views and the results of that review.
The further Government response was that:
“There is no evidence from the responses to the research into pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination to suggest that there is a need to increase the time limit for a woman to bring an Employment Tribunal claim.”
As has been said earlier, three months is not good enough; perhaps even six months is not good enough. Some of the women whose cases I have seen only found out about their rights after the event, which is not good enough either. There needs to be less of a bar on that, so that employers do not get away with dismissing somebody because of their pregnancy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that having access to justice is the bedrock of a civilised society? If we cannot offer that to our women and men, and to parents across the country, we are doing them a disservice and we do ourselves a disservice, in terms of our international standing.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is so important that there is not only action, support and information, but that, if employers do not comply with the law, that there is recourse and a means of testing those employers and making them accountable for what they have done.
I hope what I and others have said in the debate will change the Government’s mind and will bring about improvements. Society and business are losing the talent and skills of women in those jobs. Women feel devalued. They may be lost to the labour market or end up in self-employment, not of their own choosing, which brings its own set of challenges. Maternity discrimination is the reinforcement and perpetuation of the gender pay gap, and it undermines women’s place in society. We have a new Prime Minister who claims to be a feminist. I call on her and on the Government to take leadership and to ensure that that is true in deeds and not just words.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this privilege. It is an honour to follow the hon. Members for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who made prescient remarks. I would particularly like to thank Maternity Action and the other organisations that have briefed us for this debate; the facts and the evidence are really important.
When I was expecting my first child 24 years ago and sought sympathy from my mother, she pointed out, “It’s not an illness. Just get on with it.” However, she went on to provide useful advice about what to expect during the different trimesters, how to look after myself, what to ask for and so on. I sought and found information about keeping myself and the growing baby healthy, and I was lucky to work for a sympathetic employer who allowed me paid time off for antenatal appointments, the ability to keep my feet raised, flexible hours to avoid the most crowded times on the tube and so on. I was lucky—I had some statutory rights, even then, and I had an understanding employer, but as we know, that is not true for many women. In fact, it is not true for a growing number of women.
Roll on to 2016. I am a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, and we have been carrying out an inquiry into maternity and pregnancy discrimination. We still have to report, but some of our evidence is available, so I am able to refer to that today. What has shocked us as a Committee is not only that things have not improved recently, but that we appear to be going backwards as a country in our treatment of pregnant women. Our inquiry followed the BIS-EHRC research published in March this year. The EHRC made strong recommendations, as has been mentioned, and we felt it was very important to do a detailed inquiry, to pick up the lead from those findings.
The research found that three out of four mothers said they had a negative and possibly even discriminatory experience during pregnancy and maternity leave and after maternity leave. As others have said, scaled up, that could mean almost 400,000 mothers a year. It is estimated that between 21,000 and 54,000 women feel they have to leave the workforce while pregnant or after giving birth because of risks not being tackled in the workplace. Fifty per cent of all discrimination happens at the point when the woman tells her employer she is pregnant, and the scale of the problem is growing. The percentage of mothers experiencing discrimination has grown by 22% since the equivalent survey of 2005.
With more and more women entering the workplace, it is imperative that maternity discrimination is not allowed to negatively affect the experience of women at work. The business case alone goes without saying. If we lose people from the workforce, or if we lose people in highly skilled jobs to less skilled jobs, that affects all businesses, as well as women’s self-esteem and rights at work. Most employers—over 84%—say they believe it is in their best interests to support pregnant women in their organisations, as well as those on maternity leave, yet only 27% feel that all women’s statutory rights are reasonable. In addition, 70% of employers feel that pregnant women should give notice of their pregnancy at the recruitment stage. There is obviously a discrepancy between the reported enthusiasm of employers to support pregnant women and the experiences women face of institutional discrimination that requires pregnancy to be known about.
The issue is not specific to particular sectors; it is wide-ranging. Women in areas as diverse as arts and leisure, manufacturing and agriculture all reported high levels of negative experiences. I want to cover a couple of case studies from Maternity Action, which has provided examples of women in a variety of fields who have been subject to discrimination ending in job loss, whether through forced redundancy or treatment so discriminatory it resulted in them having no choice but to leave their jobs. The examples I am about to cover are symptomatic of the universal nature of maternity discrimination, with workers in both office environments and more active occupations being negatively impacted by institutional discrimination.
One woman was working in a salon as a hairdresser. She worked long days, standing for most of the time, and was experiencing severe back pain as a result of her pregnancy. She asked her manager for extra rests between appointments as a health and safety adjustment, which was promised, but whenever she asked to take a break her manager refused. She also asked if she could work shorter days, so that she would not need so many breaks, but that was also refused. She had originally wanted to start her maternity leave two weeks before her due date but ended up bringing it forward to the earliest start date—11 weeks before her due date—because she was struggling so much at work and was concerned for her health.
Another woman worked in childcare, for a small independent nursery. She had been there for five years and had a good relationship with her manager. When she told her manager she was pregnant and asked to discuss her health and safety, she was immediately moved from a room where she was working alongside other colleagues to one where she was working on her own. Her manager started to criticise her work in front of her colleagues and refused to give her time off to attend her antenatal appointments, insisting that she use annual leave. She tried to talk to her manager about those issues, but was told she should be glad she still had a job and that her performance was being monitored. She ended up being signed off sick for stress and resigned before her maternity leave was due to start, as she did not feel she could ever return to work for that employer.
Another woman worked in administrative office work. She had done the same job for three years and always had a good relationship with her employer, so she notified her boss when she was 10 weeks pregnant. She suffered from severe morning sickness and was signed off sick for a week. When she returned, she found that her shifts had been reduced from 40 to 10 hours per week. She was told that it was because there was less work available, but none of her colleagues had seen any changes to their hours. When she challenged that, she was told that as she was unwell, it was better for everyone that she work fewer hours and that her employer was “just looking after her”. As a result of her reduced hours, unsurprisingly her average earnings fell to £80 a week from her 13th week of pregnancy, so she did not qualify for statutory maternity pay.
Those are just some examples that illustrate the scale of the problem, which is massive and growing. What can we and the Government do to address the issue of pregnancy discrimination? There is a raft of legislation to protect the rights of pregnant women and mothers in the workplace, including the four core legal rights: paid time off for antenatal care; maternity leave; maternity pay or allowance; and protection against unfair treatment, discrimination and dismissal. However, it is clear that many employers are not adhering to those rights. It is our duty to ensure that those rights are safeguarded and that the recommendations of the EHRC report in March are upheld.
As has been said, the EHRC recommended improving best practice to promote family-friendly workplaces, effective management and open communication, and improving health and safety management in the workplace, so that employers manage risks effectively and women are not forced to choose between their job and their health or the health of their unborn child. However, we need to push for regulations to become context-specific, because issues of pregnancy are more critical in some work environments, such as firefighting. It is clearly not appropriate to be on active service as a firefighter when pregnant, but that does not mean that women should have to give up their job.
Most of the employers interviewed by the EHRC were willing to accept requests to work flexibly. However, mothers reported that requesting flexible working had negative consequences for them. More than half of mothers reported negative treatment, such as job responsibilities being removed, as a direct consequence of making a request.
The Women and Equalities Committee has already stated, through our “Gender Pay Gap” report, that all jobs should be offered flexibly from the word go, unless there is a reasonable justification not to. At present, employees must wait six months before they can request flexible working. We have been calling for the Government to encourage employers to offer different forms of flexible working when advertising jobs and to allow new employees the right to request it as soon as they start a job. To make flexible working a norm for all genders is to normalise it as a practice, as well as normalising the notion of men in a caring role. There is currently a gap of 38% in median hourly earnings when comparing part-time women with full-time men. In addition, offering senior jobs as flexible or part time would go a long way towards stopping the opportunity gap between men and women as well as between those who have children and those who do not.
The Select Committee had quite a lot of evidence from casual agency and zero-hours workers. Those workers did not even have the rights of employees. We were concerned that they do not have, for instance, a right to paid time off for antenatal appointments; maternity or shared parental leave; a right to request flexible working; or protection against unfair dismissal. Some of our witnesses saw that as a reason for the increase in pregnancy and maternity discrimination. With the increase in casual working and zero-hours contracts, we consider that that problem will only increase. Citizens Advice suggested to us that the “increased job insecurity” experienced by such workers “impacted on” their
“confidence in challenging discrimination and other workplace problems.”
On redundancy and job loss, a key finding from our evidence was that pregnancy and maternity discrimination has increased since that was last researched. Many more women are now under the pressure of being made redundant or being forced to leave their job. Rosalind Bragg of Maternity Action told the Committee that 30,000 women lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy discrimination in 2005, but that figure jumped to 54,000 in 2015.
Your Employment Settlement Service—YESS Law—said that employers who understood the law made women redundant after their return to work so that the protection provided under regulation 10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 did not apply. That regulation provides that an employee who is made redundant during maternity leave is entitled to any existing and suitable alternative work in preference to other employees, including those at risk of redundancy. I feel that we should go for better protection from unfair redundancies. That is just one of a number of recommendations that I would support; others have been mentioned today.
We know, and the Select Committee found, that the issue of information and advice is critical. With 50% of all discrimination happening at the point at which the woman tells her employer that she is pregnant, it is imperative to provide information to women via channels such as midwives and GPs before the meeting with their employer. As all women go to their first maternity appointment, would that not be a good time? That said, a midwife, in our briefing, said that an appointment of 15 minutes was not long enough to cover both the clinical information that a newly pregnant woman, and particularly a first-time mum, needs and the workplace information. It takes long enough to get the clinical information over, let alone covering essential workplace information as well. I suggest that the Government work with the NHS and others and consider providing information, in a written and online form, that midwives can forward to pregnant women at that first appointment. The Government could also do a lot more in the way of communication on protecting health and wellbeing. That needs to be improved.
We heard particular concerns about women leaving their jobs because health and safety risks had not been tackled. The BIS and EHRC research found that one in 25 of the women surveyed—scaled up, that could be 21,000 women—left her job because health and safety risks had not been tackled properly. Evidence focused particularly on whether employers should be required to do a risk assessment specifically for new and expectant mothers or whether the current generic risk assessment is enough to ensure that risks are dealt with. The EHRC suggested that employers need to get better at talking to women about health and safety throughout their pregnancy. However, Maternity Action said that the general risk assessment was “woefully inadequate” and that employers should be required to do an individual risk assessment.
I have already covered casual and zero-hours contracts. The rights of workers in those jobs need to be considered in relation to any future Government action.
My colleagues have covered access to justice, the appalling institutional discrimination that the fees for employment tribunals involve and the impact that that has had on employees’ rights to take action against discrimination—
Order. I remind the hon. Lady that the winding-up speeches will start at 4 pm and suggest that she might like to draw her comments to a close.
I will do so, Ms Buck.
In conclusion, we need not just specific action but overall leadership for change, so that employers attract the best talent, create the conditions for their staff to perform well and avoid the loss of skills and experience that happens as a result of the kind of decisions that women are making when they get pregnant, as we have heard today. I am concerned about the lack of urgency displayed by the Government in tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination and I hope that, under the new Prime Minister, the Government provide a better model for leadership and look out for the report of the Women and Equalities Committee and our recommendations in order to improve the situation. This is a very important issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this extremely important debate.
For many women, the excitement of telling friends and family about their pregnancy is matched by the apprehension about telling their employer. In 2016, that fear should be unfounded, but unfortunately the evidence clearly suggests otherwise. The hon. Gentleman highlighted that in discussing some of the findings from the EHRC and BIS research. He talked about 77% of new mothers experiencing negative treatment at work and about the difficulties faced especially by younger and single mothers, who are most at risk of being badly treated by an employer. Also, 11% of mothers reported that they had felt forced to leave their job. Maternity discrimination is now more common than ever, with 54,000 women forced out of the workplace each year.
The research found that one in 10 women had been discouraged from attending antenatal appointments. Indeed, many women feel uncomfortable about asking for the time off—I know that from my own experience. During my first pregnancy, I was a teacher with an extremely sympathetic employer, but although my employer was supportive, I felt bad about asking for time off to go to my appointments, and I missed several simply because I did not want to burden my colleagues with more work. Many women feel the same. It is now incumbent on employers show some leadership and challenge those ideas when they have pregnant employees.
Those in precarious employment are at even greater risk. How does a woman with unstable employment defend herself against a discriminatory employer? Even in professions such as law, accountancy, business and education, many women fear challenging the discrimination they face in the workplace.
It was great to hear the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) talk about her own experience, how the experiences of MPs would enrich this debate and how we could be positive role models for the nation. She mentioned “Power to the Bump”; we are all looking forward to welcoming the new arrival in Parliament; let us hope that Parliament is as family-friendly as it purports to be.
This morning, I met women who had experienced maternity discrimination and organisations including Maternity Action, which offers advice on women’s rights. Some of the stories I heard were disturbing, and a comment was made that we are moving back to 1950s employment practices. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) described her own experience of maternity leave and why she feels we are moving in the wrong direction. She described her thorough work on the Women and Equalities Committee and mentioned that discrimination has increased by 22% since the last report was produced.
The hon. Lady also highlighted the need for more flexible working and mentioned some case studies, but I would like to talk about a couple that I heard this morning. We heard from an agency teacher who had an administration fee deducted from her statutory maternity pay by her agency. This illegal practice, sadly, is not isolated. Another woman had worked for a company for 15 years as a currency trader before having her first child. When she returned to work, her desk had been physically moved to the side of the room, isolating her from the main office activities. Despite her asking two or three times a week for a back-to-work interview, it was six weeks before anybody sat down with her. No attempt was made to train her on the new systems that had been installed during her absence, and although she was now working longer hours than in her previous 15 years, she felt there was no way back after her pregnancy. When she told her employer she was expecting her second child, he threw a pen across the desk at her—as she says,
“all because I dared to use my womb.”
During a recent university visit I met some female academics, including a postdoctoral researcher who was pregnant. Although her employer was supportive, she felt that she would have to leave academia when the baby arrived. She talked about the potential difficulties of juggling caring for a baby with an experiment that ran on into the night, and the expectations her peers would have of her behaviour. She said:
“To be successful in academia, this has to be your life.”
Employment tribunals are the last resort for many women, as a number of Members have highlighted this afternoon. Yet the introduction of employment tribunal fees, coupled with the three-month time limits, has done nothing to tackle workplace discrimination. We now have a situation where three quarters of women are experiencing discrimination for having children, but only 1% are taking their case to tribunal. When the UK Government introduced those fees in July 2013, in reality they introduced a barrier to women’s access to justice and a charter for rogue employers. The hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned the review of employment tribunal fees; we have been waiting for the review since July 2015 and still there is nothing, so I ask the Minister whether we can really push forward with that. It is of absolute importance that we get some review of the fees.
Anti-discrimination laws have been in place for 40 years, but women who have experienced discrimination are often not aware of exactly what rights are in place for them. That is compounded in cases where there is no trade union representation. For new mothers and pregnant women, seeking justice from an employer will not be the first priority at that point in their lives, so the three-month time limit on making a claim must be extended to ensure those women have full access to their rights. That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who also mentioned the importance of breastfeeding breaks to both an employee’s productivity and their loyalty to a company.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the steps the Scottish Government have taken and the leadership they have shown. The immediate future looks brighter for Scottish women. The Scotland Act 2016 will mean that power over employment tribunals will reside with the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the commitment made by Scotland’s First Minister to taking action to tackle the issue and the announcement that the Scottish Government will abolish tribunal fees in Scotland. In practice, that will mean that Scottish women face fewer barriers when exerting employment rights and in access to justice, and will not face the same financial penalty when trying to tackle rogue employers. Women across the UK must have the same access to that justice; it is to everybody’s advantage; it increases productivity; it is good for the economy; it is good for the health and wellbeing of employees and, most importantly, it is good for children, who are the future of the country.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Buck. It is also a pleasure to serve opposite the Minister for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for securing this important debate and being the only male speaker in it. I also thank the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for her excellent contribution and I wish her absolutely well in her pregnancy and in becoming a mum.
Discriminating against women because they are pregnant, breastfeeding or have recently given birth is illegal. It cannot be tolerated and deserves the full force of the law. I am pleased that it seems that some things have moved on a little from the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) when she was pregnant—but not enough, as she clearly demonstrated in her speech. She reminded us that this is a growing problem and that we need to do more.
A Britain that discriminates against women is not the Britain that I love. I can think of no better Minister to respond to the debate—I admire her for her strong, robust and straight-talking nature, and I am sure she will tackle these issues in the brilliant, no-nonsense style that she normally brings to the Chamber.
Too many women are suffering discrimination in the workplace, and too many are forced to suffer in silence. Maternity discrimination is incredibly common. Three out of four working mothers experience some form of discrimination in their working life. That cannot be tolerated any longer. We have heard many examples outlined today, and we cannot be silent. As lawmakers, we have a duty to uphold the law, and we must demand change on behalf of the 54,000 new mothers a year who lose their job.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) outlined, for too long women have been treated unfairly or discriminated against in the workplace. Too many women feel that having a baby and taking their lawful maternity leave will threaten their job, lead to trouble in the workplace, harm their promotion prospects or, potentially, end their working careers. Unfortunately, we have heard many factual examples of why people feel that way. Pregnant women are told by their midwives to avoid stress for the safety and wellbeing of their unborn baby, but how is it possible for an expectant mum to avoid stress if she faces daily discrimination in the workplace?
Maternity discrimination in the workplace does not have to be obvious or blatant. My constituent Joeli, who has been in the Public Gallery with the little one throughout the debate, is a magnificent and successful project manager. When she was four months pregnant with her first child, her main client sacked her suddenly, without warning. After her experience, she founded the organisation, Pregnant Then Screwed, which collects women’s personal experiences of discrimination and unfair practices at work. It hears from women who feel that they have been punished and pushed out of the workplace for daring to want both a career and family.
Women report being harassed out of their job or forced to take voluntary redundancy. As we have heard, they have very few places to turn for help. Access to an employment tribunal is impossible for women on low pay, shift work or zero-hours contracts. As many Members have said, they face whopping tribunal fees that make it virtually impossible for them to take legal recourse. No wonder less than 1% of women who have experienced maternity discrimination bring claims to tribunal. What good is the law when it is out of reach for too many women? Will the Minister explain how the Government are working to remove the various barriers to women raising complaints, therefore ensuring that all members of society have fair access to justice?
As a proud mother of three, I, like millions of women, know how tough it is to balance the demands of working and raising children; I am sure the Minister can relate to that as another powerful working mum. I appeal today for greater understanding at every level of society of the pressures that new mums face. A lot of questions have been asked today and we have limited time, so I shall stop there, because I want to hear the Minister, who I am sure will respond robustly to those questions.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) not only for securing this debate, along with other hon. Members, but for being the only man who has taken part. It is perhaps a pity that more men have not even attended this debate and listened to the wise words of so many other hon. Members, all of whom happen to be women. Let us be honest: it is very difficult to stand and talk about these issues, because as we know it is invariably the case that women are remarkable—far more remarkable than men. We have the most amazing ability to multi-task. Incredibly, we are often the more courageous and the more relaxed, and the better warriors in our lives, and I apologise to any man who takes offence at that.
We are quite remarkable because we produce children, and yet, having produced children, we have this incredible ability to carry on as though nothing else was happening in our lives when we are either carrying those children, because we are pregnant, or when we go on to give birth. I do not want in any way to lessen those women who, by choice or just by bad fortune—whatever it may be—do not experience what I thought was the hugely enjoyable experience of being pregnant. That might place me as a very odd person, but I thought it was great. I do not talk about these things normally, because it is always dangerous to raise people’s expectations. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has enjoyed her pregnancy and I can assure her mother that she looks absolutely brilliant. She is at one of the best stages—when we seem to be full of energy and we look fabulous. Not all women have that experience.
We have heard stories about women who suffer from often terrible bouts of sickness—the Duchess of Cambridge was extremely poorly in the early stages of her pregnancy—and there are no excuses for employers not to know, understand and take that into account. Being pregnant is not an illness; we do just get on with it, which is another mark of how brilliant we are as women. But for some women, it is not a breeze, and it is not right or fair of employers in any way to discriminate against them and not to understand that.
I am horrified to hear that in this day and age there are still employers who would have any problem—it is not so much about not allowing them—with a woman who needs to go to the clinic on a regular basis. It is not acceptable. If someone had hurt their foot or their arm and had to go and have their cast off or their stitches out, nobody would say to them, “Oh, it’s not really very convenient.” There should be no discrimination at all, including no discrimination when the women have had their babies. I have gone completely away from my prepared speech, which is not unusual.
I thank the Minister very much for the points she is making. For women who are diabetic or are having a particularly difficult pregnancy after a previous pregnancy loss, does she accept that they need those hospital appointments very dearly? They should be encouraged to go to them and nothing should stand in their way.
Absolutely. Let us be quite scary about this: as a society, we need people to have children. That is not because they bring us huge amounts of pleasure and joy, which is almost impossible to articulate. Again, I do not like to talk about that because not everybody has the sort of experiences, especially with babies, that some of us do. A lot of people suffer with postnatal depression and a lot of people do not find that they immediately fall in love with this wonderful bundle and so on, so I think it is really important that we do not talk too much about that, apart from privately, when we can discuss these things. However, we need people to have children—not, as I say, just because it brings great pleasure, especially when it comes out of a loving relationship, and what could be greater and more wonderful than that? We need to have babies as a society because we need the workers and contributors of the future, especially as we are all getting older. That is putting it in hard, callous economic terms, but that is the reality. It behoves us as a society—that includes business and employers—to do the right thing. They should be grateful and happy when somebody in their workforce becomes pregnant—not only to share their pleasure and joy, but for the fact that for society this is a good and beneficial thing. If we can persuade employers to understand the huge wider benefits, it might be part of that improvement in the attitude that we clearly need to see.
In the excellent speeches and contributions we have heard, I do not think anybody mentioned that we need to make it clear that good childcare provision is essential to making mums and dads happy. I am delighted that this Government have committed to providing 30 hours of free childcare for working families and that we provide up to 85% of childcare costs for people on lower incomes and universal credit. We are investing more than £5 billion a year in early education and childcare, which will increase to more than £6 billion in 2019-20. Those are important statistics to put on the record. None the less, we can always do better—that is the reality.
Until we get really good free childcare that every woman and every father can access, it will not make the huge improvements we need. It makes a huge difference, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will discover, if people know that they have rock-solid childcare. There is nothing worse than being at work and having that awful sinking feeling of, “Oh goodness! I’ve got to go off to the childminder”—or the nursery, or wherever—“and pick the children up.” That does working women no favours, so the answer is good childcare.
My hon. Friend is a Business Minister, so will she also put out a clarion call to potential entrepreneurs to start up childcare businesses with a view to the new policy coming in from 2017? It should be a win-win all around.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but we have to ensure that the fees are right as well. That is the downside for parents, especially if they are not earning a great deal of money, because the cost of childcare can be extraordinarily high. For many families, it becomes a really difficult balancing act of going back to work and working the hours they want to work, while also having enough money to pay for the childcare. That is why I would love us to work towards a situation in which we can all enjoy free childcare. It is the stuff of dreams, but a great goal to have.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on childcare, which has not been mentioned, so she is absolutely right to bring it into the debate. Will she pay attention to the funding of the 30-hour option, because in the past few weeks I have met several childcare providers in my constituency who are worried that they will struggle to keep afloat as businesses because of how the 30-hour offer is funded? If that is not sorted out, we will lose childcare places, rather than gain them.
Absolutely. It is really important—and I think that somebody said this in their speech—that people complain and bring all these cases to their MP. This is the place to raise such issues, and not just in debate. Write those letters to Ministers and hold them accountable.
As hon. Members know, there is a reshuffle under way. Some people might be surprised to see that I am here, but here I am replying to this debate—actually for a Minister who resigned yesterday. I will not go into all that or into the fact that this morning when I went into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my office no longer existed; it had been moved. Hey ho, these are happy jolly times and we move swiftly on.
Many points have been made about tribunals. We have a woman as the new Secretary of State for Justice—for the first time ever, we have a woman Lord Chancellor, which is brilliant news. She is a mother herself. Let us hold her to account on this matter. We now have a new Minister for Women and Equalities. I pay huge tribute to the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). I have no doubt that our new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), will take up these issues with the rigour that she applied in her previous brief in the Department for International Development. Maternity discrimination issues are really important and we must put them absolutely at the door of Government and our brilliant new woman Prime Minister.
Pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination have no place in today’s workplace and no place in a progressive society. I will not be able to answer all the points raised today, but I undertake that I—or whoever is in my shoes—will write to hon. Members after the debate. Female talent and experience make a huge contribution to the productivity of individual businesses and the economy generally. It does not make sense for employers to alienate a key group of their workforce, as many employers—but not enough— recognise and understand, so for a number of reasons it is surprising that we find ourselves debating pregnancy discrimination.
In response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), I think it is fair to say that some jobs genuinely are full-time jobs. When somebody goes on maternity leave and wants to come back and change their hours, it can cause problems for a lot of small business employers, in particular. We have to understand that it is not quite as simple for the smaller businesses as it is for some of the larger ones. Some jobs cannot be shared and some really are full-time jobs, but perhaps that is for another debate.
The EHRC has considered the research findings in depth and its recommendations to Government and others reflect that maternity discrimination is in part a cultural issue and that we are not going to change attitudes and behaviours that fall far short of what we expect in the modern world overnight. I am grateful to the EHRC for the work it has done and continues to do with the Government to take the Government’s response to its recommendations forward. It is right that we debate this important issue and take it to the highest level of Government.
We need to get it right, and it is important to work with businesses and others to bring about the required change within a legal framework that is already clear. That is why the commission, the Government and our partners, such as ACAS, are doing all the things that they are. We are exploring opportunities with the EHRC to bring on board businesses to articulate the benefits of supporting women and share their good practice across the business community, encouraging peers to join the initiative. That includes exploring how behavioural insights or nudges—techniques that can raise awareness of legal obligations and best practice—can make employers realise and understand that a happy workforce results in high production and all the things that they want to make their business successful and make it grow.
On that note, I thank all contributors to the debate and promise that they will get letters on all the various points raised. I urge them to continue to raise the issue at the highest levels of government, and I will do my part.
I welcome the Minister’s robust and direct condemnation of the discrimination of pregnant women and new mothers. Getting that restatement from the Government is important. As someone who has been told in no uncertain terms that it is my turn to pick up our daughter from nursery, I understand the Minister’s point about the significant relief of having rock-solid childcare arrangements.
The debate has been extremely useful and wide ranging. I am grateful in particular to Maternity Action and the series of excellent campaigning groups that are working on the issue. I again pay tribute to the EHRC for its work, which formed the backdrop to the debate. I hope the House will indulge me if I take the opportunity to praise my constituents Zenobia Hammond, Sophie Kathir and Kathryn Stagg, who have provided useful insights.
I welcomed the contribution of the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and I wish her well with her pregnancy. She made important points about the “Power to the Bump” campaign and the benefits of shared parental leave. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), among many points, underlined the cost of tribunal fees as a further major hurdle for women who have borne the brunt of discrimination taking their employers to tribunal and holding them to account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), in her excellent speech, drew attention to the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, which will be hugely important in ensuring that the debate is not a one-off, but that the issue continues to receive scrutiny in the House.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) helpfully underlined that, amid the joy of being pregnant, the unease of having to tell an employer that one is pregnant is an experience that many who read the proceedings of the debate will recognise and share. She also made an important point about how discrimination has a particular impact on those whose working situation is precarious. One thinks of the rise of those who do contract work and the additional difficulties they will face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) underlined the fact that there is a growing body of evidence, both anecdotal and serious research, about the scale of pregnancy and maternity discrimination and the need for the Government to take further action, particularly on tribunal fees. The House will have to return to the issue a number of times before we get to the situation we all want, where every pregnant woman and new mother is properly valued by their employer. However, this has been a helpful and useful debate and I particularly welcome the Minister’s contribution.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered maternity discrimination.