[Relevant documents: First Report from the Women and Equalities Committee, Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, HC 90, and the Government response, CM 9401.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of maternity discrimination.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am very pleased to have secured this debate on an important topic for many women and a key campaigning area for the Labour party: maternity discrimination. I thank all hon. Members who have turned out this morning to contribute to it.
Maternity discrimination is an issue that cannot be ignored. It is only right that action be taken to ensure that this persistent issue in our society is ended once and for all. It is a welcome point of reflection for us all that this debate comes exactly a week after we celebrated International Women’s Day and just over a week before mothers’ day. I felt it was important to secure the debate between those two dates, to press the Government to do more, but also to raise awareness of the many women beyond these walls who are met with blatant and unnecessary discrimination.
Many people—some of whom may even be in this Chamber today, although I hope not—think that maternity discrimination is not a concern that we should focus on, possibly because it does not feature on their radar at all. But it is real, it is happening and it is becoming ever present in our society. Action is needed. That is clearly documented in the Women and Equalities Committee report from last August, which highlighted the fact that pregnant women and mothers are now reporting more discrimination and worse treatment in the workplace than 10 years ago. By some estimates, that discrimination is double what it used to be. According to the Government’s own figures, one in nine women—54,000 in total—is forced out of their jobs each year because of being a mother or becoming pregnant. If that statistic applied to the women elected to this place, it would mean 21 of our fellow female MPs being forced out of this House. If that happened, we would be up in arms and raising merry hell on the Floor of the House. Well, if it is not acceptable for women in this place, it is not acceptable for women in any workplace.
A hundred years ago, women got the vote for the very first time, as part of a campaign to see women become part of public life so that they did not have to abide by the whim of a man and could be fully integrated into society, taking their rightful place as both actors and influencers in how our country should look and act. However, a century on, women still face many hurdles, and all because of their gender.
I will touch on three key themes in my speech. First, I want to set the scene by expanding on the ramifications, both economic and social, of maternity discrimination in our society. I will then move on to the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Women and Equalities Committee. Finally, I will look at what the Government are doing—or not doing—to end maternity discrimination.
As I said, this place would be a lot worse off if the statistics on maternity discrimination were replicated in this, the mother of Parliaments. However, maternity discrimination has a far broader impact on our society than some may first expect. The financial costs identified affect not only society, but businesses, the Government and the women themselves. A report last year by the EHRC found:
“The cost to employers of women being forced to leave their job as a result of…discrimination…was estimated to be around £278.8 million over the course of a year.”
Much of that cost was incurred owing to recruitment and training to replace the woman who was forced out of her job, lost productivity from being down a member of staff and statutory maternity payments if the woman was on leave when she left work. For the Government, maternity discrimination means not only lost tax revenue from women not working, but increased benefit payments when they seek support because they have been forced out of work. The cost to the Government is between £14 million and £16.7 million a year.
The financial losses that women themselves face have been estimated to range from between £28.9 million and £34.2 million. Some 20% of women reported significant financial losses as a result of failing to get a promotion, receiving lower pay increases or bonuses than they would have secured were they not pregnant, or even demotion for becoming pregnant. Pregnancy and children are costly—there is no doubt about it—but the costs incurred by women are unjust, unfair and discriminatory. The gift of pregnancy should never be a cost to a woman’s potential or her economic worth.
It is not only the economic costs of women being forced out of the workplace or facing discrimination for becoming pregnant that are a problem, but the social and equality issues that arise. Women’s position in society has come on in leaps and bounds from the time when they were not able to vote, could not work once they were married, had to stay at home or had to defer to a man for every major decision made in their life—as late as the 1970s, women had to have a male guarantor for a mortgage. However, the specific issue of maternity discrimination highlights the fact that the position of women in our society is still tentative. There is still a long way to go.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. Does she agree that such discrimination also happens later on in life? We should recognise that women also face discrimination during the menopause. That point was very well made to me on Saturday by the Wales TUC women’s committee, which is doing a survey on that very subject.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that period in women’s lives. I will not be able to touch on it in my speech, but it is very important. There is a real lack of knowledge about what women have to go through during the menopause. I am probably not long off that period myself. People have no idea what women may have to go through, but we hear all the horror stories. A little understanding from employers would make all the difference. I know that I would probably be a better employer after I have gone through it; unfortunately, men do not have that luxury, so they rely upon us to tell them. That is definitely an important aspect of the matter, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
Some may argue otherwise, but for me and many other women—especially on this side of the House, but across the House, too—equality is a cause worth fighting for, because it creates not only a fairer society, but a stronger and more resilient one. Maternity discrimination holds us back from achieving that goal of an equal society. We need renewed vigour to tackle the problem, so that we can fully realise our country’s potential, with everyone having a fair chance in life and not having to face discrimination for being who they are. It was therefore welcome that this time last year the EHRC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published their findings on the prevalence and nature of maternity discrimination in our society, so that we could fully understand the scale of the problem, which was indeed damning. The research showed that, of the women surveyed,
“77%...had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy; maternity leave; and on their return from maternity leave.”
Such experiences included facing harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy, struggling to secure flexible working from their employer to manage the demands of pregnancy and subsequent childcare, or, for 9% of women, feeling that they had to leave their job because they were being treated poorly or unfairly.
What women are documented as facing because of pregnancy and impending motherhood is worrying and deeply shocking. Even case studies from Maternity Action’s helpline have documented these shameful occurrences. One woman became so stressed with her working environment, where she was being singled out by her manager and treated appallingly, that she was signed off sick with stress before her maternity leave had even begun. As we all know, when someone is pregnant, stress is the last thing she needs. She is told to have a calm and radiant time, which was hardly the case for that mother. It goes without saying that no woman should face such hurdles in life or feel pressured into choosing between having children or having a career that progresses at the same rate as the careers of their male counterparts.
Following the forensic light shone on the issue by the EHRC, the Women and Equalities Committee, under the excellent leadership of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who I am thrilled to see in the Chamber today—I look forward to her contribution —undertook to investigate maternity discrimination further. In August last year, that inquiry produced some excellent recommendations for the Government to look at and act upon. Sadly, however, it took until January of this year for the Government to respond to the inquiry’s findings.
Included in the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report were further calls for action around the health and safety of pregnant women in the workplace, such as placing a duty on employers to conduct an individual risk assessment for new and expectant mothers, all the way to identifying issues around casual, agency and zero-hours workers, who do not have the same pregnancy and maternity entitlements as women classed as employees.
In an economy that increasingly relies on temporary contracts, more and more women are unable to access any kind of statutory maternity leave, because they have no right to it. That is because they are classed as workers rather than employees. Does my hon. Friend agree that much more needs to be done to provide those women with better access to maternity rights?
I totally agree. On the issue of workers and employees, there is clearly a need to tidy up the law so that women who work in these areas of the labour market are protected and guaranteed the same rights as those women who are classed as employees, so I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that issue. Indeed, Maternity Action has pushed for action on it and recently made a submission to the Matthew Taylor review, which aims to look at working practices in the modern economy, and to the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy inquiry, “Future World of Work”. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on progress on this issue.
It is safe to say that when the Government eventually responded to the Women and Equalities Committee report, the response was far from pleasing. Although the Government’s commitment to zero tolerance of discrimination against expectant or new mothers in the workplace is to be welcomed, as is the announcement of a consultation on protecting pregnant women against redundancy, sadly the wider response failed to see words leading to action. The Government’s response can easily be seen as a mixture of defending the unacceptable status quo and kicking the issue into the long grass, as if it was something that should be thought about on another day. The Government are failing to realise that this is happening right now.
I am not just making a party political point. The likes of Maternity Action have analysed the Government’s response and reaction to each of the recommendations and have come to the same conclusion: that the Government see this as an issue for another day. I have a lot of time and respect for the Minister who is responding to this debate—she knows that—but I find the Government’s response disappointing to say the least. That is why I hope she can offer me some reassurances when she responds to this debate.
I would like the Minister to consider two things ahead of her response. First, when will we see the details of the consultation on protecting pregnant women from redundancy? Two months on from the Government’s commitment to consult on this issue, we are yet to see publication of the scale or time frame. I hope that information will be forthcoming following this debate, and sooner rather than later. Even better, the Minister could announce further details in her speech today.
My second ask is that the Government take another look at the excellent recommendations in the Select Committee’s report and heed the words of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, who said that the Government’s response was
“a missed opportunity for the Government to demonstrate the urgency and bite on this issue that we found lacking”.
I could not have put it better myself. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will commit to re-evaluating the Government’s response to the Select Committee report and their own wider actions when it comes to maternity discrimination.
To conclude, we have come a long way in the march for women’s equality. I know that this point will not be lost on the Minister, but it bears reiterating: as the current standard bearers, we in this House have a duty to uphold the work done by the women who came before us. Failing to end maternity discrimination would betray our crusading predecessors, who campaigned to improve the position of women in society. As women here today, we have the power to make the changes possible for women who face discrimination in the workplace for being pregnant or being a new mother. However, we must also stand up for the women who will come after those facing these challenges now, and ensure that in the future no woman faces discrimination in the workplace for doing what is only natural—having a child.
I hope that the Minister will heed this call to arms and take it back to her officials, knowing that we in this House and many more women beyond this Chamber are willing her on to make the changes needed and improve the standing of women in the workplace. She alone has the power to do that. I hope she realises that and does not squander this incredible position she has to enact change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
I shall begin by apologising to Members for the fact that I need to leave shortly before the end of the debate, as I have to chair a Select Committee. I hope that they will accept my apologies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing such an important debate. We have record numbers of women in work in this country, but we still have a workplace that is not sufficiently modernised to deal with those record numbers. The hon. Lady took an intervention from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who was absolutely right to say that all too often now we have different classes of women in the workplace, who are not being dealt with in the way that all of us, as constituency MPs, would want them to be dealt with.
We need to modernise the workplace and make sure that it can deal fairly with both mothers and fathers who have caring responsibilities. In particular, and in keeping with the subject of this debate, we need to ensure that the critical issues that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West identified, which have also been identified by both the Select Committee report that she referred to and by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its work on discrimination, are outlawed and stopped. We cannot allow those things to continue.
As the hon. Lady mentioned, the Government’s own research has indicated that around three quarters of the women involved in that research have experienced a negative or potentially discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy. We would not expect that in a country that prides itself on introducing the Equality Act 2010 and on the fact that we have record numbers of women in work.
Not for a moment do I question the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister in this area; as someone who has extensive knowledge of and experience in business, she will know first-hand the importance of supporting women and fathers through the experience of having a new addition to their family. At the moment, however, the law is not working in the way that we intend it to, which is what I want to focus on.
I shall discuss three recommendations in the Select Committee report, to which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West kindly referred to in her speech. First, not all people who are in work are treated the same, and a difference has started to emerge between workers and employees. In particular, the fact that many women are not able to access paid time off work to attend antenatal appointments should be deeply worrying to us all, because there is clear evidence that attending antenatal appointments and receiving regular support through pregnancy is critical to the health of both the unborn child and the mother. If we are not to accrue costs beyond the pregnancy, because of conditions such as postnatal depression or because of issues around the health of children, we need to address this matter, and rapidly.
I do not think that there was ever really any intention for us to get to a position where quite large groups of women were not covered to have paid time off. However, when the Select Committee visited to Portsmouth with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) to take evidence from individuals in the community as part of our deliberations, we met women who had not had access to paid time off for antenatal appointments, which caused them deep distress and great worry.
The Government need to look at that issue and address it quickly. Perhaps during the Brexit deliberations and the passage of the great repeal Bill, and given the clear commitment from the Prime Minister to protect and, I hope, enhance workers’ rights, this issue can be dealt with swiftly.
The hon. Lady makes a really important point, which I would take one stage further: it is not just about women and mothers; it is about men, too. If we are to tackle the issues around shared parental leave and its low take-up, we need to ensure that the information is there for mums and dads—and, indeed, all individuals involved in new parenthood. The research we did for our Select Committee report uncovered the fact that many dads find it difficult to access information and perhaps even more difficult to ask for information from their employer. A number of the recommendations in our report cover access to information, and I know the Government will have looked at them carefully.
My second point is about how we can learn from other countries—near neighbours and countries that are very like us. Many Members get a little fed up about the fact that we always refer to Scandinavia when we look for models for how we should run our country, so this time let us look at Germany. It has a very strong economy and is well run. It has an interesting way of providing the additional protection for pregnant women that I would like to see in our country. It has protection from redundancy for new and expectant mothers up to six months after the birth of a child. That has worked well and made it clear to employers that redundancy is not an option or way forward.
Anecdotally, I have spoken to constituents and people I know who have been pregnant, and they have been offered redundancy while on maternity leave. My goodness, that is a difficult choice, is it not? New mums are coping with an incredibly stressful and possibly quite vulnerable situation. For their employer to offer them redundancy could well be attractive at that point, and they may well take it up and sign a piece of paper saying that they will not disclose that they have taken that offer. That makes it difficult to see that such things are going on. They then come out on the other side of the pregnancy and maternity leave and find it incredibly difficult to get back into the workplace: that is hard, particularly if, as the research tells us, someone has taken more than six months of maternity leave. It would be useful to look at the German system and perhaps interpret it for our country. I do not think anyone could say that Germany is not a competitive economy. Its productivity levels are far higher than the UK’s, and I urge the Government to consider that measure as part of their work.
The final point that I want to draw everyone’s attention to is the probable underestimation of the scale of the problem. I referred earlier to women who might be on maternity leave who take up the offer of redundancy. That is not recorded. Cases may be happening, and we might simply not be grappling with the scale of the problem. That demonstrates the need to ensure that the enforcement action available in this country has teeth. I welcome the thoughtful work that the Government have already done on tribunal fees. I know they are thinking about how we can make tribunals more accessible for more people.
I welcome that, but another problem for pregnant women is the time limit that precludes their taking action where there has been discrimination; action cannot be taken more than three months after the incident. I cannot recall how old your children are, Mr Chope, but I am sure you can cast your mind back to the position three months after the birth of a child or three months after your wife might have taken maternity leave. It is a hectic time when it is difficult to think about bringing a discrimination case. There are better things to do.
I was therefore slightly disappointed that the Government said that at this point they will not consider extending that time limit for pregnant women to six months. It would be entirely appropriate to do that. I do not think there would be a cost to the Government in doing so, and a great deal of fairness would come into play. I hope that they can do that, as well as encouraging the Equality and Human Rights Commission to demonstrate the strength of the law by bringing more cases more publicly. That would show that there are consequences to the ill-treatment of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave and that this is not something that companies should be treating in an apparently cavalier fashion.
The Minister has looked at the matter in detail, and I give her my personal thanks. The response to my Committee’s report demonstrated her careful attention, and I thank her for that. I also reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for calling this debate, which has given me an opportunity to contribute and underline the report that the Committee wrote. A number of members of the Committee are here today.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this debate. It is not the first time we have debated this issue in Westminster Hall or other parts of this building. In July last year, we had a debate on this issue. In January, I spoke at an event with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) hosted by Maternity Action.
It is with some frustration that we are here today, having seen so little progress on the excellent recommendations by the Women and Equalities Committee and so many other campaigning groups. At the event in January, Maternity Action previewed some excellent videos that it had produced to highlight to women the actions they can take. The videos put it very well. It was ordinary women in ordinary jobs facing up to the issues that every pregnant woman must face about what will happen with their job and what will happen when they become pregnant in the first place and when they have their baby. I encourage all women and, indeed, men watching this debate to take a look at those videos and to share them widely, so that women know what their rights are and that they can come forward. It seems clear that women are not aware of their rights and are not being encouraged to exercise them.
It should not be down to charities such as Maternity Action and grassroots campaigns such as Pregnant Then Screwed to highlight to women their rights. The Government should be letting women know what their rights are and encouraging them to take them up. They should be cracking down on employers who inhibit women from doing so, and they clearly have a role in that.
The Alliance for Maternity Rights has a 32-point action plan to put an end to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. It makes a great number of excellent recommendations, one of which is about access to information. When women come into contact with officials, that should be used as an opportunity to get information and reinforce what their rights are and where they can seek advice and seek help. Some of those things are being done in Scotland. Point 10 of the action plan is:
“Reintroduction of the ‘Pregnancy’ and ‘Birth to Five’ books…in translation and accessible formats…for new and expectant parents”.
In Scotland, we have the “Ready Steady Baby” books and a great deal of information is available about women’s rights within pregnancy and once they have had the baby. It is important that women have every opportunity possible to get that information.
The action plan also has good recommendations about improving employer practice. Point 3 is:
“Commit to working with employers to encourage them to evaluate the retention rates for women one year after returning to work following maternity leave, as part of their gender pay gap analysis.”
When they go back to work, some women find it just too difficult to juggle all the things they have to juggle, whether it is childcare or trying to get to work on time or to leave on time to pick children up from whoever is looking after them. It is incredibly difficult and stressful, and some women find that far too difficult and that flexibility is not built in.
Point 4 is:
“Work with employers and third party organisations including recruiters to encourage a ‘flexible by default’ approach to all roles (working hours are flexible unless there is a genuine business case against).”
As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned, that is good for men, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) encouraged me to point out that only 2% to 8% of men take up their right to shared parental leave. That is tiny. If maternity leave and paternity leave are made more accessible, more normal and more mainstream—something that everybody has a right to take up—that has to be good for men, as it is for women. Employers are obliged to consider requests for flexible working, but they are under no compulsion to act on that. Sometimes getting up the courage even to ask for flexible working can be incredibly difficult.
The issue around stress in pregnancy is also significant. I had a briefing from the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics, which highlights the costs to society of perinatal mental health problems. That is a serious issue made worse by the stress of pregnancy when it comes to dealing with employers. The briefing states:
“Taken together, perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a...long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK. This is equivalent to a cost of just under £10,000 for every single birth in the country.”
How much of that is down to the stress of dealing with unsympathetic employers who do not help and support women in those circumstances? If we can do something to reduce that stress and the impact it has on those women and their unborn children, we should definitely do it.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I apologise for being late. Ironically, I was dropping my daughter off at nursery, which is why I came in a bit late. The hon. Lady is making a passionate speech.
I want to raise a point about Parliament when I was pregnant last year. It may surprise some Members to know that there is no maternity leave here in Parliament. I raised the issue several times and was met with hostility across the board from people of all political parties. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) was one of the few who listened and said she would try to make some changes. Does the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) agree that if we are preaching about maternity discrimination, perhaps we should think about the fact that Members such as myself have had to come back to Parliament almost immediately after having an emergency C-section.
I absolutely agree. I know the hon. Lady has tried very hard and has been in the Chamber with her baby at times. I am glad to see babies in the Chamber, but that speaks to the fact that there is no other provision in this building. There is no alternative for people to look after their babies other than perhaps leaving them with a member of staff. The nursery across the road is not a crèche. We need to think better about how we encourage women into this building in the first place and how we keep them here. There is not enough support.
The hon. Lady’s point about maternity leave for women in the House is right. It is also true for councillors across the country as well. There is no provision under the Local Government Act 1972 for councillors to have maternity leave, and lots of councils do not have any provision, either. I know because I breastfed both of my small children when I was at Glasgow City Council, and I just had to make the best of that. The council was very supportive at the time, but I know that it is difficult and a challenge for women in politics, and we need to think about how we support women in that field.
Access to justice is a serious issue as well. The EHRC, an organisation at serious risk right now, has been mentioned. It does not have enough funding and cannot support all the women it would like to support. The Government need to give serious consideration to making their role in this real, because if they cut funding as well as having tribunal fees, they really are denying women access to the justice that they deserve.
Pregnant Then Screwed has a campaign called “Give Me Six” to highlight an issue that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke raised about having six months to make a claim. There is a petition with 50,000 signatures. I encourage people to sign it, because it is incredibly important that the Government recognise that three months is a barrier. There are so many things going on that people cannot access their rights under employment tribunals, and six months would give them a little more breathing space.
It would be remiss of me not to mention breastfeeding in this debate, as I always tend to do. As Maternity Action has highlighted, one in five women who stopped breastfeeding say that returning to work influenced that decision, and more than half would like to have breastfed for longer. That is a difficulty. Employers need to be aware of what they can put in for breastfeeding mums. The Alliance for Maternity Rights recommends that the Government
“Ensure...breastfeeding is covered in....HSE template risk assessments”,
and calls on them to
“Introduce a statutory right to time off and facilities for breastfeeding”.
Such facilities do not need to be complex. We simply need a private room with access to a plug point for a breast pump, so that there is time and space for that, and fridge facilities for putting the milk in. Those are not difficult asks for employers, but women have to have confidence that they can ask and not be misunderstood, dismissed or laughed at, and that employers are able to provide such facilities as easily and as quickly as possible.
I will close by giving some examples from constituents of mine who got in touch with my Facebook page after the event in January. I was shocked at how quickly these examples of people’s experiences came in and how commonplace they were. The women told their stories almost casually. The first woman said:
“I was made redundant at 3 months pg. I was one of 5 HR Managers doing exactly the same jobs. (Not) surprisingly none of the others were even in the consultation process.”
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned Germany as an example. Such examples might stop such practices. The second woman said:
“I worked for a company that got around laws by describing its workers as freelance. They told me to go on benefits when I was pregnant, a few months later they were made to make their freelancers paid employees, but I was just left pregnant on benefits. Very stressful all round, I was told I had no legal come back on them as I had had to leave whilst still freelance.”
The third woman said:
“My gran’s neighbour was two weeks away from leaving on maternity leave meaning she would get maternity pay when they said to her they didn't need her any longer and let her go.”
The fourth woman said:
“This happened to me. I got a job and when I told them I was pregnant they withdrew the...offer claiming I wasn't suitable for the post and that I'd only ever been a candidate. I took them to tribunal and lost, but I wanted to hold them to account. It’s awful that companies can and do get away with treating expectant and new mums like that and if you want to take them to court you need to pay for it.”
That woman was actually applying for a job in a nursery, so we might expect them to have some appreciation of babies and childbirth and suchlike. Another woman said:
“I had to quit my job. They gave me less hours as I had hyperemesis gravidarum but not less duties or even breaks when I was on shift.”
That speaks to the understanding of pregnancy. Some employers, male and female, go with their own experience on this. If they did not have morning sickness or particular experiences in pregnancy, they will often think that is true for all women—“If I was able to get up and go to work while I was pregnant, you should be able to, too.” Employers need clear advice on such issues.
When I was coming here across from the main building, I noticed a buggy sitting outside the Labour Whips Office. I assumed it belonged to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). That speaks to the point that we need to make sure that babies are visible. The lives of ordinary people involve having children and the different compromises that we need to make in life. So many babies are born every single day and each person has an individual story to tell. We need to make pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood visible. We need to think about how we support people and how Government can take a leading role in making sure that the rights of women and families are respected and taken forward by all employers across this country. Those who do not adhere to such laws should be cracked down on.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Chope; it is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship on the issue of maternity rights.
In my contribution, I will mention my personal experiences and what I gleaned from my former industry, and look to the future at what can be done to improve the outlook for expectant women and mothers. As we have heard, many credible and sound proposals have been put forward by the Women and Equalities Select committee, of which I am a member and which is brilliantly chaired by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). However, my contribution will focus on women in casual work.
First, as many may know, before my election to this place I was an actor and a writer. In those industries, the work is almost exclusively freelance or short-term casual. After my first daughter was born—she was only a few months old—I was offered a six-month contract on “Coronation Street”. Those six months turned into three years. I absolutely loved the job and the character I played, but I cannot deny that being a mother and working on screen presented difficulties.
My baby and husband were in London while I worked often six days a week in Manchester. During that time, my partner and I tried everything. My partner moved to Manchester to be with me, but, with no support network, that did not work. We had no nursery at work. We tried employing a nanny, but that did not work. I tried to be both a mother and an actor, spinning the plates, but that did not work.
The No. 1 priority of an actor on TV’s favourite soap must obviously be the work over and above family commitments. After looking around the green room and realising that other women had made such choices, I had to make a choice for myself: my career in “Coronation Street” and my future there, or my family. I handed in my notice and planned baby No. 2, leaving when I was six months pregnant. Luckily, in soap opera, they use the big handbag to hide a woman’s pregnancy, so that was employed for a number of months. However, freelance workers such as actors, writers and filmmakers, and so many others in today’s world of work, do not have the luxury of company maternity pay, so when I became pregnant, my contribution to the family finances was state maternity allowance.
The wider issue is more serious. On the whole, pregnant women are invisible in film and television, unless the star is already attached, as seen previously with—I’ve forgotten the actress’s name. Her surname is Colman—somebody give me a clue.
Olivia Colman—I thank my hon. Friend—in “The Night Manager”, and the actor in “Fargo”. The reason why they got those jobs was that the producers and directors absolutely wanted those actors, so they overlooked the fact that they were pregnant and wrote that into the story. They were chosen despite pregnancy, because they are bankable. In writing this speech, I found it difficult to think of many other characters on our TV screens who just so happen to be pregnant. In film, it is even less common. When have we ever seen a waitress or lawyer who is pregnant and it just happens to be incidental, not part of the story?
That invisibility influences the public’s perception of what pregnant women are capable of. I assume that that has an impact on employers. If employers do not see ordinary women getting on with their lives, having breaks for their antenatal appointments and—irrespective of the pregnancy—just doing their job, that impacts on decision-making in the workplace. I would say that there is no small link between the fact that we do not see pregnant women on TV who are just getting on with their jobs and women in Sports Direct, for example, giving birth in the toilet. There is a profound link. If we do not see it, we cannot be it; if we do not see it, we cannot deal with it.
Regrettably, in the world of work, no progress has been made since my personal experience. As an actor, when a woman starts to show, she absolutely stops working—she falls off a fiscal cliff. What would normally be for most women a moment of joy and delight is replaced by panic: how on earth am I going to earn any money in my chosen profession once I start to show? I will confide in hon. Members: when I was offered the part of Sarah Ferguson in a film for ABC TV, I hid the fact I was pregnant because I knew they would fire me. I was so far down the line then that they had to accommodate my circumstances. An actor is a worker and should not be put in the position of having to lie to their employer.
As we have seen from the Women and Equalities Committee report, pregnant women and mothers report more discrimination and poor treatment at work now than they did a decade ago. The situation is even worse. Going backwards is not acceptable, so it is high time we looked at the positive proposals in front of us seriously and carefully, and acted with urgency, because more women today are being made redundant or feeling forced to leave their jobs than in 2005. More than three quarters of women surveyed in recent research have experienced a negative or potentially discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy or maternity.
The report gives us further reason for concern, including the fact that mothers who left their employer as a result of risks not being resolved were more likely than average to be on an agency, casual or zero-hours contract—9% compared with 4% on a permanent contract. The casual employee is more vulnerable to such discrimination. Some 50% of those on agency, casual or zero-hours contracts reported a risk or impact to their health and welfare when pregnant. It is really important we make progress, as agency and casual work is not going away—it is on the rise. Citizens Advice tells us there has been a 58% increase in the past decade in the number of people in temporary jobs because they are unable to find permanent work. That is an important rise and it is incredibly important that women in those jobs are treated fairly and equally.
There are some common-sense options on the table. I hope to hear the Minister’s views on extending the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments to those in casual work, after a short qualifying period, which would allow women to access the medical care they need without losing out financially, and on whether the Government will commit to taking steps to offer greater parity of rights between casual workers and employees. As casual work becomes more common, our rights at work should not disappear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this important debate and thank all hon. Members for their excellent speeches.
Maternity discrimination is an extremely complex issue: it is not just about having a job to go back to after having a baby. I would like to speak briefly about my own experience. People who know me will be aware that I have two children, so I have some experience.
During one of my pregnancies, at around seven months I experienced anaemia and the GP said I could not work full days at that point. I gave that advice to my manager, but unfortunately she said, “Oh, well—you are going to have to take hours off your annual leave at the end of the day, or you are going to have to go off on your maternity leave early.” People who have been through the process of having a baby while at work will know that going off early or using annual leave means that that leave cannot be used at the other end of the maternity period, with the baby, so it puts a woman at a disadvantage straightaway. Given that my manager was a woman, I had expected a bit more empathy, and given that I worked in the NHS, I had expected that the GP’s advice would be taken on board. I was quite appalled by the situation and how it was handled.
I do not think that taking annual leave or starting maternity leave at an earlier stage is a “reasonable adjustment”, when other things could be done—my job description, for instance, meant that I could do research at home, or, as I worked as a union rep a day a week, I could have used some of the hours to do union work. So there was absolutely no necessity for me to do either of those things. Unfortunately, given the uncompromising nature of the management system that I was in, I went off on maternity leave early—I felt forced to do that—and so lost time with my baby at the other end. It would be helpful to clarify, for both women and employers, the term “reasonable adjustments”. All too often, I feel that employers use it as a way of engaging in surreptitious discrimination and getting round their obligations.
The next issue I experienced was when I was off on maternity leave. There were job and training opportunities afforded to colleagues that I was never informed about. As many employees do, I had “keeping in touch” days—it is certainly something that the NHS advocates—so there was no reason why I should not have been able to come in and take up training opportunities alongside colleagues, using those days—but I was absolutely never contacted about the opportunities.
The rationale given by the manager when I challenged that on my return was that, because we had had a conversation during my pregnancy about my wanting to spend quality time with my baby, she did not think I would want to do any of those things. I felt that was a decision I should have been able to make. Someone should not just assume, because a woman has had a baby, that they know best and do not need to contact her and give her any opportunity to inform with her own views. Again, I found that extremely unacceptable.
Will the Minister give some clarification on the three-month period? Obviously, when someone is off on maternity leave—they might be off for a whole year—some of those things can happen when they are off. Does the three-month period when a woman is able to raise a concern with the tribunal occur from when the incident that she might not have known about happened or from when she becomes aware of it? That is really important. A lot of things could happen, and until a woman returns and speaks with colleagues or finds out that people have moved to other jobs, she can have no knowledge of what opportunities there were.
I thank the hon. Lady for those words. That is an extremely important issue, and I will come to it. I was lucky: because I was a union rep, I had my union’s support and I could afford the tribunal fees. Although my case never went to a tribunal, I have absolutely no doubt that if I had not gone down that road and had not had that support, the issue would have been swept under the carpet and not dealt with.
I have real concerns that women without such support—perhaps they are in workplaces that are not unionised—do not have adequate representation and cannot afford tribunal fees, given that a baby is expensive enough. Women are not going to prioritise tribunal fees over their baby or their family’s needs.
I had been working as a consultant in the NHS for many years, so I was not in a junior position, but when I came back to work a male colleague was given management responsibility for a new member of staff who had joined the department. They were originally to work under both of us—50% with each manager—but the management opportunity was taken away from me, although I had been a consultant for far longer than my colleague.
I did not know about the decision until the new member of staff arrived and said, “You’re not my manager. The other individual is my manager. Did no one tell you about it?” I said, “No one told me about it. I didn’t even know you were arriving today.” When women go back to work and are juggling everything, people often do not give them any choice or any information. They are not even given the courtesy of being updated about what was happening.
I felt that my managerial duties were being removed. When I challenged that decision, I was told that the rationale was that I was part-time, and that it had been decided during my maternity leave that I might not be able to deal with the managerial responsibilities. Once again, because I had come back from maternity leave and was trying to manage my family time and my job—the number of hours had been agreed—my role was demeaned, which meant that I was subservient to my male colleague. That is certainly what I felt. I was aggrieved about not being consulted about a decision that affected my job.
Shortly after I returned to work, it became apparent that very little of my patient workload had been undertaken in the year I had been off. That really concerned me, given that I had a number of patients in a forensic setting who required updated risk assessments annually. No one raised that issue with me on my return, but approximately 70% of the patients whose risk assessments I had been involved in doing prior to going on maternity leave had not had any updates during that time. I had to contact my professional body and take advice about clinical risk, and then I had to raise that issue with management. That is difficult, particularly for individuals who work in the NHS, because whistleblowing is not easy. People do not want to find themselves in that situation, particularly if they have come back from maternity leave. However, we have to take our professional and clinical duties extremely seriously, and that is the situation I found myself in.
I raise these issues not for sympathy or because I want people to say, “That’s terrible. It shouldn’t have happened to you,” but because I feel that my story is only one among the thousands that happen in this country every year. The impact and extent of maternity discrimination is not always obvious. It is not always about having a job to return to; it is about all the issues surrounding that. We have to address those issues. The NHS has quite robust policies in place, but lots of organisations do not, so other women find themselves in much more difficult situations.
I had support from my union, Unite, which I would like to thank. I applied to the tribunal and paid the fee, but many women cannot afford that and do not have support. That issue has to be addressed. In the Scottish Parliament, the plan is to scrap tribunal fees. The Minister should look at doing the same, or at least ensuring that the fees are based on the ability to pay or are smaller. Tribunal fees put so many people off. Given the stages I went through with my grievance, I have no doubt that, had I not had the potential to go to a tribunal at the end of the process, my concerns and the issues I raised would have been disregarded. A “reasonable adjustment” would have been made or an explanation would have been given, and they would not have been taken seriously.
Women should not be discriminated against for something that is so natural—having a family—particularly when they are pregnant or have just had a baby, because that is when they are most vulnerable. It is our duty to take these issues forward and give women as much protection as we can. There are already statutory obligations, but they need to be strengthened because there are far too many ways around them.
Women do not experience equality in the workplace and are unlikely to unless we take action and make employers’ obligations very clear. I would like the protections to be extended and clarified; it should be made obvious to employers that they apply during the period of pregnancy and the maternity leave period, and also for a period on return, because those are all periods in which women are vulnerable.
We need to make it explicit that women have the right to training opportunities, job opportunities and management opportunities. They must not come back to a workload that has not been done while they were off. The advice of their GP or medical practitioner should be taken on board. At the very least, those things should be happening. This is a huge problem for many, so let us acknowledge it and ensure that the Government work across the United Kingdom for women and equality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. We have debated this issue before, but it is welcome that we are doing so again. As she highlighted, the Government’s failure to take action and level the playing field for the many women who experience maternity discrimination leads to a huge economic loss.
The House debated this issue last July, and since then the Government have responded to the Women and Equalities Committee’s report, but I am only too disappointed that they have not taken up the many recommendations in it. Issues such as access to childcare, flexible working and shared parental leave are commonplace in this debate. We have heard so many stories of women who experience maternity and pregnancy discrimination daily. As a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I am passionate about this issue, and I believe the Government can do more. I know that the Minister believes, like I do, that this is unjust, and that she wants to take action if it is possible to do so.
The Committee’s report challenged the insurmountable fees and the negative impact that they have on such women. I know there are issues to do with “floodgate” scenarios and costs and so on, but in this instance we can do more.
My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) have been champions for the role of fathers in the workplace and the emphasis on flexible working and shared parenting. However, that does nothing to tackle discrimination. I pay credit to the Alliance for Maternity Rights and Pregnant Then Screwed for being vociferous in their approach.
I am sad to say that the Government have failed to take serious action. Fifty-four thousand mothers experience discrimination and unfair dismissal every year and one third have a negative experience, despite having the right, according to the law, to 52 weeks of leave, including 39 weeks of statutory paid leave, and the right to return to work. Sadly, however, too many women feel unable to access those rights. My colleague the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), Chair of a Committee that does such a fantastic job on bringing forward such issues, has highlighted how often pregnant women are coerced into waiving their rights and unfair dismissals simply go unchallenged.
With a large percentage of the workforce likely to face maternity discrimination during their lifetime and in their experience of pregnancy, the law needs to exist not only in writing but in practice. It is time for us to tackle entrenched and outdated problems in society and the workplace. I recognise that that is not simply the job of Government, and we have to work with businesses large and small to bring about the best practice possible.
I pay tribute and give recognition to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for speaking about their personal experiences, raising issues to do with insecure contracts and their treatment when they returned to work. Too many women are employed on zero-hours contracts and in unstable employment, and too many such women receive a raw deal.
The fact is that women face significant barriers. The introduction of tribunal fees can undeniably be seen to have had a negative impact on women who are pregnant or experiencing that discrimination, which places an additional barrier in an already stressful part of life. The Government have failed to provide an adequate response to that negative impact.
As we have heard, the Scottish Government have committed to scrapping tribunal fees when they have the extra powers to do so. I would ask this Government to consider some sort of remedy to achieve the same for women throughout the UK. The time limit of three months is often insufficient, as we have heard, and at the very least I hope that the Government will consider extending that to six months, to give women the appropriate time to find recourse for any actions. It is a stressful enough time for many women and their families who are experiencing discrimination in the workplace.
Many women want to return to work; they simply want to enjoy their family life first and foremost. Let us do more to support those women. We have the powers to do so, and I hope that this House and this Parliament will do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I look forward to the time when the Chair is not the only man in the Chamber when we have a debate such as this, which is symptomatic of the uphill struggle we still face. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this hugely necessary and timely debate. I also thank her for all the work she has done over the years on maternity rights and on early years. I am grateful for everything that she has done.
As hon. Members have outlined today, maternity and pregnancy discrimination is an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of women every year. It goes to the very core of what this House should be striving to ensure, which is that all women can engage as full citizens in society. We must ensure that women can participate fully in the workplace and, if they choose, have children and work.
The last Labour Government recognised just how important that was. They extended the right to statutory maternity leave to a full year for all employed women, regardless of length of service, and they doubled maternity pay. Those changes made the UK an international leader in maternity rights. At the time, we had the most generous allowance internationally for the length of maternity leave. This Government, however, are not leading. They are not active in tackling maternity discrimination. They appear to be content with the status quo, despite having the evidence—their own evidence—for how bad the problem is. As has been mentioned, research published in March 2016 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shed light on the sheer scale of maternity discrimination.
The facts need repeating. Seventy-seven per cent. of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination or negative treatment during pregnancy and maternity, and on their return from maternity leave, which equates to 390,000 women each year. In 2005, the proportion of women who reported maternity discrimination was 45%, or 32% lower than today. The figures are stark, but we must remember that they represent real women: women who have been made to feel that they need to stop breastfeeding, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said; women whose health and safety are put at risk by managers who do not understand or, worse, do not care about the impact of work on the woman or the pregnancy; and women who are denied statutory maternity pay or flexible working, or are demoted, downgraded and devalued, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) discussed.
The consequences of maternity discrimination are severe. Eleven per cent. of mothers, or 54,000 women, lose their jobs as a result of such discrimination each year. That includes 9% of women who were treated so badly that they felt they had no choice but to leave. The Government’s failure to tackle the issue or take seriously any of the suggestions set out by the Women and Equalities Committee, and their presiding over a working landscape where maternity discrimination is getting considerably worse, are shameful. Not only are they failing women and their families, but it makes no economic sense to lose 11% of the workforce each year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West also mentioned the 2016 BIS and Equality and Human Rights Commission report. It estimated the financial cost to employers of women being forced to leave their jobs as a result of pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination at about £278.8 million over the course of only one year, the cost to the state being between £14 million and £16.7 million.
I thank my hon. Friend for her passionate speech and would like to take this opportunity to thank her for all the work that she, too, has done in this field.
Last night when I put this debate on the Facebook page of the local mothers’ group of which I am a member, one of the women, Anat, wrote back about how statutory maternity pay is lost if someone changes jobs while pregnant. She works in the technology industry, where it is normal to change jobs every two to three years, so she has a choice between dropping out of her industry, which would be a huge loss for women in the tech industry, and avoiding career progression, if she goes down that route. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at how statutory maternity pay can be kept for women in certain jobs in which they have to switch employer every few years? One policy cannot fit all.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I am interested that she used the word “choice”, because we are not giving women any choice. We are not reflecting the current employment situation or representing the needs of women. The Minister is passionate about the issue, and I hope that she is taking everything on board.
That brings me beautifully on to the next part of my speech. I am concerned about how we as a society regard women, women’s work and women’s place in that society. Maternity discrimination is another structural block that prevents women from reaching their economic potential. Eighty-six per cent. of the Government gains in the most recent Budget impacted negatively on women, yet they still refuse to gender-audit their policies, so we have to question their commitment to tackling the growing inequality. In addition, the use of insecure contracts has ballooned over the last 10 years, with more than 900,000 workers in the UK on a zero-hours contract, 55% of them women.
I commend the work of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, which pointed to the inherent problems for casual, agency and zero-hours workers, whose rights for women are less assured than for women who are considered to be employees. For example, a woman might be forced to choose between working and earning, and attending an antenatal appointment that is vital to the health of both mother and baby. The Committee recommended that expectant mothers who are casual, agency or zero-hours workers should be entitled to paid time off for antenatal appointments. It recommended that the Government review the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to workers, and legislate to give greater parity between them and those women considered employees.
The Government announced in their Budget plans a review of the rights of self-employed workers. Will the Government extend that to include the rights of women on insecure contracts, casual and agency staff and zero-hours workers? Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable for women on such contracts, already likely to be earning less, to be burdened with the choice between earning and looking after their health and that of their unborn child?
Another theme reported on by the BIS and EHRC research, the Women and Equalities Committee, and women’s rights groups such as Maternity Action is the link between pregnancy and poor health and safety. Women reported being forced to lift heavy objects and stand on their feet for hours, being unable to take toilet breaks, and so on. Unsurprisingly, there is a clear link between insecure work and women being forced to leave their employer as a result of health and safety risks not being resolved. The Government must do more now, not only to help employers to understand how to identify and mitigate risks relating to pregnant women, but to compel employers to conduct risk assessments for new, expectant or breastfeeding mothers. Will the Minister tell us why the Government did not accept that recommendation from the Women and Equalities Committee? After all, an employer would undertake a specific risk assessment for an employee who had returned to work with a medical issue that meant their role needed to be adapted, so why should it not do so for a pregnant woman or a new mother who is breastfeeding?
The introduction of employment tribunal fees is a real burden of shame for this Government, who have priced women out of upholding their rights in the workplace. According to TUC analysis, the number of working people challenging discrimination or unfair treatment at work has fallen by 9,000 a month since charges of up to £1,200 came in. Since the introduction of fees, the number of sex discrimination complaints that include a tribunal claim has dropped by 76%, and pregnancy-related cases have fallen by 50%. Only 1% of maternity discrimination cases end up in an employment tribunal. That is a disgrace, and the Government know it, yet the only promise they have made is that they will tinker with the “help with fees” scheme to extend the support available to people on lower incomes. Can the Minister see that linking justice to the ability to pay flouts fundamental democratic principles?
Furthermore, people with £3,000 of savings remain at a disadvantage, as the Government say that they can “rein in” spending on non-essential items to meet the £1,200 cost of bringing a claim. The Government clearly have not considered the circumstances of women who anticipate a major drop in their income due to childbirth and have prudently saved for essential day-to-day living costs or obvious essential items for their new baby, such as a buggy, clothing, a car seat or a cot. Those are not luxury items. Fees should be scrapped. If the Government will not do so, will the Minister discount savings for the purpose of claims alleging maternity or pregnancy-related discrimination? Will she also take seriously Members’ recommendations about extending the three-month term for maternity discrimination cases to six months?
I will deal briefly with the Government’s consultation on protections against redundancy for working mothers, which was announced in January. No details of the consultation, such as its scope or timeframe, have been published, but we already know that its reach is too small. The consultation will look only at redundancies as a result of maternity discrimination, which impact approximately 5,000 women each year. It will do nothing for the almost 50,000 women each year who are dismissed or forced to resign from their jobs because of having a baby. Why are the Government not looking to review the rights afforded to women with worker status compared with those who are employees? Why are the Government refusing to address health and safety issues? Why are the Government continuing to ignore the devastating impact of employment tribunal fees?
There are related issues that we could progress if only the Government gave this matter the priority it deserves—issues such as discrimination and lack of support for women who miscarry or those experiencing menopause. The Government urgently need to treat such discrimination. Women in the workplace and those who have been forced out cannot afford for the Government to continue to close their eyes to these issues.
Finally, in the context of Brexit, will the Minister give clear assurances about how the Government will ensure that we do not roll back maternity and pregnancy rights? The EU has been the source of much of the UK’s legal protection for pregnant women and new mothers. We will not stand by and allow this Government to undermine those rights. We will not allow this Government to accept the flawed status quo. Women and their families deserve so much more. I know that the Minister is committed to this area, so I really hope that she listens to some of the recommendations made today and acts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate in such a timely manner—as she pointed out, we are between International Women’s Day and mothering Sunday, which is apt.
I thank all Members for their excellent and thought-provoking contributions. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), whom I heard speak for the first time and who gave an excellent speech. We also heard from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—I hope I pronounced that right—the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who reminded us all of the unacceptable extent of pregnancy discrimination, which was unearthed by the EHRC’s good work.
This is the first time we have considered maternity discrimination since the Government responded to the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendations, and I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss what we are doing. I have made careful note of some of the things that were raised that point to the need for further action.
I shall begin by making it clear that pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination has absolutely no place in today’s workplace or a progressive society. It is illegal, and the Government are committed to tackling it. Women make up 47% of the labour force, and more than 15 million women are active in the labour force at any time. Female talent and experience make a huge contribution to the productivity of individual businesses and the economy generally. I have spent more of my career in business than in politics, and I add that mothers bring a huge amount of experience from their responsibilities in that role. I very much agree with hon. Members who made the important point that pregnancy is not visible enough. There was a time when women almost had to hide the fact that they had children to progress in their careers. We have moved on from those days, but not enough.
In her excellent speech, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West talked about the effect of pregnancy discrimination on the wider economy in lost tax revenues and increased benefit costs, to say nothing of the personal financial loss to the women concerned and their families. We are committed to building an economy that works for everyone, and supporting all women, including mothers, so that they can participate in the labour market to their full potential if they choose to do so is an important part of that work.
I am grateful to the Women and Equalities Committee for its thorough review of this issue, and I echo the many complimentary remarks that hon. Members made about the excellent chairing of that Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We responded to each of the recommendations in the Committee’s report, setting out additional steps to protect pregnant women and new mothers, but as I said, I accept from what I have heard this morning that we still have more to do.
We have committed to review redundancy protection. Our thinking is at an early stage, but it is clear that new and expectant mothers need to be supported and treated fairly by their employers, and that does not always happen. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West asked me to update the House on where we are with the review. It would be bit premature for me to do so, but I will be able to shortly. I will write to her when I am in a position to update her properly.
The findings of the research into pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination and disadvantage that was commissioned jointly by my Department and the EHRC paint a picture of some workplaces that is quite at odds with expectations in today’s society. We have a legal framework that gives pregnant women and new mothers rights and protections, and women have a means of legal redress if they are discriminated against because they are pregnant or take time away from work to care for their baby.
We have heard from several Members about the practical challenge for new mothers of bringing cases to tribunal, where that is necessary, within the statutory three-month limit. As we set out in our response to the Committee, tribunals have discretion to allow claims after more than three months have elapsed, where that is just and equitable, but I accept that that is in the gift of the tribunal and is not the same as people having the right to a longer period. We will consider what further guidance could better clarify the position.
There is another issue I wanted to raise. When I originally contacted ACAS regarding the situation I found myself in, rather than informing me that there was a critical three-month window in which to apply for a tribunal, I was told to go through a grievance procedure in the NHS, which takes much longer than three months. Does the Minister agree that it is important that women are given advice as to the timing of the tribunal and the need for an application to be in place before using the grievance procedure?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I hope the situation has improved since she used the service but, in case it has not, I will write to the chairman of ACAS to convey her concerns.
The hon. Lady also asked about the time limit and how it is interpreted. The three-month time limit applies from the date the discrimination happened but, when there is a series of events, the time limit runs from the end of that series. There are flexibilities, and time limits can be extended where it is equitable to do so, such as if it is not reasonable to expect a woman on maternity leave to have been aware of events while she was away.
We are keen to help mothers return to jobs that make full use of their qualifications and experience, and to enable them to progress. Part of that is about removing specific barriers. We know that from the EHRC research, and we have brought in the working forward campaign, which intends to improve advice and share best practice, calling on employers to make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers. We have some way to go on that.
However, more than 100 employers, representing 1.2 million employees across the UK, have signed up to the initiative, which is an important milestone. Many of the employers pledging action such as Barclays, Nationwide, Royal Mail and Ford are putting in place returners programmes and means of staying in touch with pregnant women and new mothers on maternity leave, which is another point that was made.[Official Report, 23 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 11-12MC.] I am pleased to say that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has joined the campaign and I hope that more employers will be inspired to sign up.
I said I would return to the ways in which we are helping to address the barriers. Couples can take advantage of shared parental leave and pay, and the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks’ service can help mothers among others to combine work with caring responsibilities. I accept that people sometimes feel inhibited about requesting flexible working arrangements, but as that becomes more commonplace and as we put more behind campaigns to raise awareness of how easy it can be and how it can improve productivity and make companies more competitive, I hope that people will feel less inhibited and the situation will improve.
We are now introducing the entitlement to 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds as well as tax-free childcare, enabling more children than ever to benefit from Government-funded childcare. To help monitor progress, we require large organisations to publish their gender pay gap and bonus pay gap data. We are committed to supporting mothers and fathers to balance work with family life in a way that works for them and their circumstances. I echo the remarks made by the shadow Minister that it is disappointing that the only man who has participated in the debate—from a sedentary position—is indeed the Chairman. We need to get male colleagues involved in these debates and discussions, because mothers’ issues are not just the preserve of mothers.
Several hon. Members raised the issues for self-employed women. In fact, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) talked about her position as an MP, which brought that home to me. Of course, she is not alone. The reason she found herself in that unacceptable position when she was pregnant last year was because MPs are not employees. We are workers, and in this area we have fewer rights than we would if we were employees.
That brings me to Matthew Taylor’s review—several hon. Members asked for an update. The review is fully under way and one of the issues on its agenda is to consider the different employment rights afforded to workers and employees. That very much includes rights to maternity benefits—and indeed paternity benefits. The review is consulting around the country. There will be a series of town hall meetings—I will attend one in Glasgow next month—and he will report back to the Government in July.
There are many factors to consider when it comes to enhancing rights funded by the public purse. Having carefully considered the issue, we have concluded that it is right to look at the case for having greater parity in parental benefits between the employed and self-employed. The Chancellor announced last week that we will consult on that specifically, independently of the Matthew Taylor review, during the summer.
A number of other questions were asked, and I am sorry if I cannot do justice to all of them in the time remaining. At the beginning of the debate, we heard a recommendation for employers to be required to undertake an individual health and safety risk assessment for pregnant women. Employers must already safeguard the health of women who are pregnant, so I was disturbed to hear about instances where that was patently not the case. Legally, employers should safeguard the health of women who are pregnant. The Health and Safety Executive has at least updated and strengthened its guidance in that respect. We dealt with the redundancy matter, at least as it stands at the moment.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central talked about incentivising employers to take on part-time workers and consider flexible working. That is an extremely important issue, which I have dealt with, as I have dealt with existing flexibilities for maternity. I will turn to the issue—
I am grateful to the Minister for leaving me time to respond. I thank all Members for coming along this morning and for their excellent contributions. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, who is leading for the Opposition in this policy area with immense energy and dedication. She is truly making her mark and has some notable successes under her belt, which is not easy for anyone in opposition. I welcome the commitments by the Minister and I look forward to receiving the letter she spoke of.
As we have heard, we have had many debates on this issue, and I think this will go down as one of the best. I hope it may be the last—at least for a while. Mark my words: we will all be following this issue closely and, if we are not happy with progress, one—or perhaps all—of us will be back here before too long, doing this all over again. As we heard in great detail from everyone present, this issue is too important to ignore. I thank everyone again for their attendance, including you, Mr Chope, and the Minister. I look forward to receiving her letter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of maternity discrimination.