I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I begin by acknowledging that the House was originally due consider the Bill on Friday 9 September. I was looking over my speech the day before when I learned, with the greatest sadness, that Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had passed away. I am grateful that we can proceed with Second Reading today.
I welcome the new Minister to his post. I also thank the previous Ministers—the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—for their support for the Bill at an early stage. They were both incredibly helpful and supportive and I am grateful to them.
I pay tribute to the officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for their excellent work in supporting the Bill. I also say a big “thank you” to the Clerks of the House, who have done excellent work, as they always do, to ensure that we can proceed with Second Reading today. I put on record my sincere gratitude to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the TUC, the Royal College of Midwives, my union Unison, Maternity Action, Pregnant Then Screwed, The Fawcett Society and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, all of which have offered invaluable support to the process over the last few months.
There is no more important or gratifying experience than raising a family. Children provide hope for the future and bring joy to our lives, although I can say as a parent, as I am sure other hon. Members will, that on occasion that has been tested to the full in my household—but that is teenagers. Despite its importance, however, raising a family has never been more challenging. The scarcity of affordable housing, sky-high childcare costs and now soaring inflation make the decision to start or grow a family simply unaffordable for many. This Bill seeks to alleviate some of that hardship by increasing security in the workplace for pregnant women and new parents by extending redundancy protections. I am proud to be bringing forward the Bill in the House today.
The current safeguards afforded under the Equality Act 2010 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999—the MAPLE regulations—are not being applied correctly, and are sometimes not being observed at all. As it stands under the law, a woman on maternity leave is entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy if her role is at risk, but a lack of clarity coupled with poor compliance means that new mums are often first rather than last to be shown the door. The sheer scale of the problem makes the case for reform irrefutable.
Each year, there are somewhere in the region of half a million pregnant women in the workplace. A Human Rights Commission survey, commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and published in 2016, found that a majority—three in four—experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination, while some 54,000 women a year lose their job just for getting pregnant. A few months on from that survey, the Women and Equalities Committee, then chaired by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), advocated for a comprehensive ban on redundancies. In response to her inquiry’s report, the Government stated that the situation was “clearly unacceptable”.
Two years on, the Government launched a consultation, and in reply they pledged to extend existing protections to pregnancy and a period of six months following a return to work. The 2019 Queen’s Speech was set to deliver these commitments through an employment Bill, but that was not brought forward, and then the pandemic hit. As with everything, covid exposed and amplified every pre-existing inequality and prejudice, and expectant and new parents in the workplace were not an exception.
Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers were more likely than fathers to have lost their job or to have quit during lockdown. The Office for National Statistics reported that parents were twice as likely to have been furloughed compared with workers without children. A TUC survey revealed a significant number of pregnant women and new mums had experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work—findings backed up by two damning reports published by the Petitions Committee.
Behind those numbers are scores of soon-to-be mums and new parents fighting to keep their jobs, struggling to support a young family and now doing so against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis. This debate is therefore not over the level of injustice—we know what that is—but about how we can correct it.
Let me explain to the House what the Bill will do. Clause 1 provides a new power to enable provision to be made by regulations about protection from redundancy during and after pregnancy. Clause 2 amends existing powers to make regulations to enable protection from redundancy on return to work from maternity, adoption or shared parental leave.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for her question. As I said earlier, she was incredibly helpful at the early stages of the Bill, and she is absolutely right to make that point. The benefit of the Bill will be felt across hundreds of thousands of households and families right across the country. Although the focus of my remarks to date has been on the impact it will have on women who are pregnant and new mums, the reality is that the benefits of the Bill extend right across the family unit. We know the official numbers are that 54,000 women lose their jobs every single year just because they are pregnant. As we can all imagine, that has a devastating impact on them, but also of course on the wider family unit. The hon. Member raises a very important question, and I completely agree with what she said.
I know there are some right hon. and hon. Members here today, and certainly a number of people and campaigners watching the debate, who would like—and this policy was previously advocated by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke—an outright ban on redundancies, as we have seen implemented in Germany. Not everybody will necessarily be familiar with the German model, so let me briefly explain it.
There are five pillars of the Maternity Protection Act that underwrite the ban in Germany. First, protection from redundancy begins the moment the employer knows that the employee is pregnant. Secondly, if an employer makes a pregnant worker redundant not knowing they are pregnant but then this information is disclosed, they must be reinstated and the protections apply. Thirdly, the local health authority must review each request from an employer to make a pregnant worker or a new mother redundant. This usually takes about three weeks in practice, and while this review takes place the pregnant woman will remain in employment. Fourthly, an employer cannot dismiss a pregnant worker or a new mother without permission from the health authority. Lastly, protections for mothers on maternity and parental leave extend to four months after it has been taken. That also extends to women who, very sadly, have experienced a miscarriage.
Although it may not be wholly translatable to the British system, there is little doubt over confusion and compliance under those rules. The Government have decided that, for the moment, they do not want to apply similar regulations here.
I want to express enthusiastic support for the Bill. It will plug an important gap in protection. Looking back at the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), we want to avoid a situation where, if there was a complete ban on all redundancies under any circumstances, that could mean that employers were having to retain employees when there was no longer work for them to do. The Bill is a reasonable compromise, as it is perhaps more difficult to take forward the previous proposals of my right hon. Friend.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She makes a helpful contribution. As she and other right hon. and hon. Members will understand, including the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, there are different views about this matter. In the end we have arrived at a reasonable and sensible compromise. The debate on that particular issue will continue, and if the Bill is successful there will be a further opportunity to debate such matters in Committee.
I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way. I have never heard of the German proposals before, and I really like them. I think they are flipping good, if I can say that, and it makes sense that we go some of the way down that road.
I am grateful to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for his intervention. I had not expected us to get into a debate today about what is going on in Germany, but he raises a valuable point. It is always important to look at how things work in different countries. The German model has been looked at closely, and a number of campaign organisations are strongly supportive of it. I have had those conversations with Ministers and a range of organisations, and there is merit in the German model, which, for the record, is my preference. I understand, however, the concerns that have been raised, and I think the Bill has currently got to the right place. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support today.
We are now six years on from the shocking findings by the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the industrial scale discrimination that expectant and new mums face at work. This is a timely opportunity to make progress. I confess that I was taken aback by the level of discrimination faced by pregnant women in the workplace. Perhaps I had made an assumption that such practices had been consigned to history, but that is not the case, and as I said, 54,000 women are directly affected as a consequence, with the wider impact that will have on their families.
This is an excellent debate, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the Bill. He suggested that more than 50,000 women in this country lose their jobs as a result of being pregnant, which has a terrific impact on family and social welfare. Are employers also missing a trick? They are losing their most valuable resource—those women—who can provide fantastic work in the workplace.
The hon. Member makes an excellent point. He is absolutely right that some employers are missing a trick here. As I said, I did not expect to get into a debate about Germany, but he makes an interesting point. There are so many amazing examples of extraordinary women who can excel at what they do—of course there are—so it seems incredibly strange that employers would want to discriminate against women in such a way.
I am sure the hon. Member will agree that that says something about the nature of our society. All of us recognise the importance of children and families—they are the bedrock and foundation of our society—so it cannot be right that women are treated in such a way and on this scale. That must be consigned to the past. We must move forward, and the Bill provides a really good opportunity to do that. I would be the first to admit that the Bill is not a panacea, but it is a good step in the right direction and I am grateful for the support offered for it.
Having made some remarks about the example that I referenced and the enforcement mechanism used in Germany, I am sure the Minister agrees that there is merit in us continuing to work closely together through the Bill’s passage to look at how, on a cross-party basis, we can seek to address some of the current safeguards’ shortcomings, namely around the confusion and compliance that I referred to.
On the former, now is the time to end the inconsistency of when and how regulation 10 of the MAPLE regulations is applied. For instance, when a firm is reducing its number of roles, many employers see their obligations to women on maternity leave as a two-stage process, initially by forcing them to compete for their job against colleagues and only then seeking to find them suitable alternative vacancies if they are unsuccessful in retaining their role. That is deeply unfair. Women on maternity leave are at a massive disadvantage, as they might have been out of the workplace for months—obviously, they have been focused on caring for their newborn child. It is also highly irrational. If a new mum has been selected for redundancy, there is little or no chance of their being offered a suitable alternative vacancy, because they will have been filled. As it stands, many workers do not know their rights under the existing regulations, businesses apply them in different ways, and even case law is conflicting.
I have been reflecting on what the hon. Member has been saying about his very good Bill, which may fill some of the gaps that we have been talking about. I also heard what he said about the evolution of society, and hopefully that—as well as his Bill—will go some way towards helping. My employer before I was elected introduced parental leave allowing both parents to take six months of paid leave. I accept that not every employer can do that, but when we get to the place where, regardless of a person’s gender and their parenting role, they are entitled to rights, employers may stop looking at women as the first place to go when making people redundant. It would no longer be an easy choice for them.
The hon. Lady raises a really helpful point, following the one made by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). The nature of the Bill, and what we seek to achieve through its passage, speaks to the decency that I think we all want to see in our society. In the Bill, we have something in front of the House that is good for pregnant mums, good for new mums and good for families. It is also good for business, as it is in businesses’ own interest to be responsible employers and to make the most of their employees.
I very much hope that the Bill will get support from across the House. I sense that it will, and I am encouraged by that. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the critique of the Bill would be and whether any right hon. or hon. Members would have issues or problems with it. I have tried as much as I possibly can to get around as many hon. Members as possible and have those conversations, but nobody has been able to say that they think there is anything wrong with the Bill. The only debate is around the extent of its ambition and whether the protections could be greater and longer. That is potentially a point of debate, but I hope that we now have the basis of a Bill that all decent right hon. and hon. Members will be able to support—fingers crossed.
An important potential positive consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill and further protection for women in the workplace is helping us to tackle our productivity problem in this country. If we can monopolise the vast resource of women in the workplace, including pregnant women and new mums, it will make us a more competitive nation, help us to plug skills gaps and make us more productive, which ultimately will raise living standards.
The right hon. Lady’s point is spot on and she has made it very eloquently. I can see there is consensus. She is right that for a very long time we have grappled with the productivity challenge, and we are still grappling with it. This is part of how we can seek to address the complicated and difficult productivity challenge that we all know we face as a country. I am grateful to her for that useful intervention.
It would be helpful at this point to inject some real-life experiences into the debate so that the House can better understand what this Bill, if successful, might mean for women in the workplace. I am in receipt of a number of real-life cases of women who have suffered injustice simply because they were pregnant. There are many, and I must say some of them are genuinely shocking.
Emily got in touch with me a few weeks ago. She was made redundant from her job more than halfway through her pregnancy and just days before she would have qualified for statutory maternity pay. She is now attempting to appeal the decision on the grounds of pregnancy discrimination and is feeling targeted not only for being pregnant, but for working part time. Her company told Emily it would be making several people redundant, but instead it laid only her off. It did not follow a fair process and she was not offered any alternative employment. Stories such as Emily’s form part of the wider issues surrounding the inconsistent implementation of regulation 10.
I welcome this Bill. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is so important because many women are putting off having babies until later in life? When I had my first child at 35, the average age in the Chelsea and Westminster hospital was 39. That means women are further on in their careers, and a Bill of this type will support women who are further into their careers as well as those who may be at the beginning.
That is an excellent point that has attracted support from right across the Chamber. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must make sure that women are making decisions about their professional careers without having to weigh up all sorts of factors of unfairness. There must be a level playing field and we must make sure that women are not disadvantaged in the workplace, so I completely agree with her and very much hope this Bill will go some way to achieving that ambition.
I was referring to Emily, whose story highlights the need for consistency and the devastating consequences of what can happen when regulation 10 is not applied correctly. Confusion should never be an excuse for discrimination in the workplace. I have been working closely with the TUC and Unison on the Bill, along with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has been incredibly helpful. It has offered to inform all its 160,000 members of the changes that the Bill will introduce, if it is successful. Will the Minister say how, if the Bill is successful, he plans to communicate the changes to workers and how he will clarify to employers their what their legal obligations will be?
On compliance, some firms simply do not offer an alternative role by falsely claiming that one does not exist. Others engineer situations to force new mums out the door. When a business flouts the rules, the onus is on the woman—who, remember, is on maternity leave—to take the matter to an employment tribunal. That highly stressful and costly decision must be made within three months. However, the 2016 findings showed that less than 1% of women lodged a complaint with an employment tribunal.
When we look into that worryingly low statistic, it is painfully obvious why the figure is so small. The scale of the challenge that such women face is almost insurmountable. Sarah, for example, was made redundant by e-mail six months into her pregnancy. Not wanting to be saddled with a gruelling legal battle during the final months of her pregnancy, she decided against taking legal action at that point. After her baby was born, she sought legal advice, only to be told that she no longer had a case because she had not raised her unfair dismissal within the three-month window. She told me that she never realised how vulnerable pregnant women are until it happened to her.
There is also Natasha: after telling her employer that she was pregnant during the pandemic, she was made redundant while other members of her team stayed on. Shortly after, Natasha suffered the heartbreak of a miscarriage. She lost her baby and she lost her job. I know that many across the House have experienced the pain and trauma of a miscarriage and know only too well its profound and devastating impact.
Those are shocking stories; I cannot believe that is happening in this day and age. Does the hon. Member think that some women are perhaps living in fear when they fall pregnant, and that some ladies’ fear of losing their job may lead to them doing the unthinkable, which is to have an abortion?
I think all of us can completely agree that that is not the kind of society in which we want to live. We should value people who do the right thing and step forward to enter the workplace. Collectively, we all have a responsibility to put in place legislation that will provide protections to ensure that people are not treated in that way.
To go back to the hon. Member’s previous point, there is a big responsibility on business. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of the business community are sensible, decent employers. They want to do the right thing. As he said, it is in their interest to do the right thing, value their staff and invest in their workforce—not least a cohort of the workforce that, in every respect, are effective and efficient, to go back to the point about productivity. We have an opportunity to take a step forward today. As I said, this is not a panacea. There is a debate about whether we should go further and be more ambitious, but this is a good step in the right direction and I very much hope that we take it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—my friend—for giving way. It seems to me that in the Bill Committee, we could put in a clause that makes it incumbent on employers to give a sheet of paper to women who are packing up their job because they are pregnant stating what their rights are. That might already be in the Bill—I do not know—but it seems to make sense and that would make it clear to women leaving their jobs exactly what their rights are.
That is an excellent suggestion. The right hon. Member mentioned the Bill Committee. If the Bill is successful in its passage today, we will look for Members to sit on the Committee. I have a form here that I can perhaps give to him—I would be incredibly grateful. He will remember the expression, “Never volunteer for anything,” even better than I do, but in good faith he may have just volunteered to serve on the Bill Committee. Fingers crossed and touch wood, if we get to that point I will be knocking on his door with the form.
I was making the point about employment tribunals and about Natasha. When she finally felt able to take her employer to a tribunal, she was told—[Interruption.] That is the office of the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) calling to make sure they have the date of the Bill Committee in his diary—[Laughter.] Natasha was told that it was too late and that she should have applied within the three-month window. Extending the time limit to bring forward a claim to six months was supported by every single stakeholder I engaged with. That is an important point.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. What has shocked me in the work I have been doing on my own private Member’s Bill on employment rights for those undertaking fertility treatment is that it is not just small and medium businesses that can have questionable policies on pregnant women or women who are trying to get pregnant, but even the larger ones, including some of the biggest businesses in the country and even major banks. I have been appalled by some of the stories that I have heard from women who have had to take their employer to a tribunal. Does he agree that, through his Bill and my Bill—which will come to the Chamber soon—it is important to give women confidence that their job is secure when they are pregnant or trying to get pregnant?
I agree with the hon. Lady’s excellent point, to the extent that I wonder whether she might also be available to sit on the Bill Committee. If we are successful today, I may be knocking on her door. There is an absolute responsibility on business to look at their practices and ensure that they are doing the right thing. My overwhelming experience of the business community is that that is what they want to do, but it is clearly not happening everywhere. For all businesses and companies, particularly the larger ones that she referenced, I hope that their minds will be focused on the issue as part of this process.
Legislation and direction from national Government is an important element, but some of it is cultural. It is about leadership in the business community and senior management looking at their own organisations and satisfying themselves that they are doing the right thing. As parliamentarians, we interact regularly with the business community, and I hope that we will have the conversations with senior business leaders in the weeks and months to come. I hope that those conversations will be well received by business. I am grateful for her intervention and hope to see her in Committee.
I was just making the point about the support that I have encountered for expanding the time limit. It is widely supported by stakeholders and that reform has also been advocated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Women and Equalities Committee, the Petitions Committee and the Law Commission. The Government have acknowledged the problem and I have had good conversations about it, but so far they have not made a commitment. I hope that will be a further point of debate, because advising women to make an out-of-time application will not cut it.
I asked the Ministry of Justice how many exceptions had been granted, and in a written answer it said that it did not have that information—I suspect it is very few. Indeed, I have had anecdotal accounts of law firms refusing to represent women if their claim has not been lodged within the current limit, as judges often do not use their discretion. Improving access to justice is an important part of this issue.
Bad employers must know that there will be consequences to their discriminatory treatment. I would be grateful if the Minister would look at when the Government are planning to implement the Law Commission’s April 2020 recommendations and extend the time limit for all employment tribunal claims to six months.
I said earlier that there is no more important job than raising a family. It seems only fair that no one should be penalised for doing so by losing their job. I also said that three in four pregnant women in the workplace experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and that 54,000 women a year lose their job just for getting pregnant. We have had a good debate about this. By any metric, ensuring that women are treated decently and fairly should be a foundation of a civilised society, rather than just an aspiration. If we are serious about tackling discrimination in the workplace, providing parity and equality and ensuring that employers fulfil their obligation, we need laws to support that ambition that are fit for the 21st century and the modern workplace. The Bill will not fix everything, but if it is passed, it will be an important step towards providing working families with more security and dignity in the workplace, which they both need and deserve.
Let me say, once again, how grateful I am to all those who have offered support and to all right hon. and hon. Members present. I very much hope that the Bill will have support from the Government and all parties, and I commend it to the House.
I am surprised to be called so early; it is unusual. I am slightly off piste, to be honest, but willingly so because this issue is so important.
Every single person on this planet is equal, but it is clear, from what we have heard and what we know, that in work women are not as equal as men. That is wrong. A woman who takes time off work because she is having a baby will take a minimum of six, nine or 12 months, perhaps longer. It is incredibly important that she does that—we all know that. Women do a huge duty to society. I do not consider women to be equal to men—please, do not just quote that but listen to the second half—I think that women are at a higher level than men. I know they will cut what I say, but it is absolutely true. Without what they do, we would have no future. We should recognise that, and so should employers.
I knew I would get that sort of response from my hon. Friend. He is right that we momentarily play a part. My goodness, am I going to be in real trouble? I hope not, because I am totally on the side of women.
This is a really good Bill, and I would like it to go further. The Government support it, so as a big, loyal follower of the Government, I support it, too. It is right. This is a good Bill because it fundamentally improves protection from redundancy for pregnant women and other people with family reasons for not working. It is simply unfair for women to be sacked or to suffer because they have been away from their job to have a baby. It is just plain wrong.
I love the idea that this Bill extends beyond the period when leave has been taken. I recall that the 2019 Queen’s Speech said we would extend protections against maternity discrimination. It has taken three years, but I am sure it will now happen. I have not heard anyone suggest otherwise. The Bill will pass Second Reading and go into Committee. Yes, I will sit on the Committee, but I ask my friend, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), to make sure it is short, because I have little concentration. I call the hon. Gentleman my friend because we were in the military together. We are apparently not allowed to be friends in this place, but we are.
The Bill will apply to everybody on maternity leave, shared parental leave and adoption leave. There is good evidence, as has been explained, that the Bill is absolutely necessary. In 2015, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that one in 10 women—10%—had been fired or treated badly in the workplace, resulting in them giving up their job. This is wrong.
Since 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Women and Equalities Committee and campaign groups such as Pregnant Then Screwed—I was a bit worried when I read that for the first time, and I wondered whether somebody had made a spello, but it is accurate and I now understand what it means—have investigated new mothers facing redundancy. The EHRC found that some 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their job in Britain each year. That is appalling. It is so wrong. A survey of new mothers by Pregnant Then Screwed—I am worried about saying such words, but that is the name—found that 30% believed they had experienced discrimination from their employer during the pandemic.
My right hon. Friend is giving a masterful and interesting speech. Does he agree that, although this discrimination is abhorrent, it also happens before pregnancy and, sometimes, during the recruitment process? Employers will look unfavourably on women of a certain age for fear that they may fall pregnant and cost them in the short term. As I said before, that is a very narrow-minded view and these ladies can probably offer more in the workplace than some of us men.
I thank my hon. Friend for saying that, and I totally agree. I have already explained that I believe women are at a higher level than men, so they do everything much better. They can certainly multitask, I gather. I certainly cannot. I am not trying to be too flippant, because this is a serious matter.
I gather recent research has found that 15% of pregnant ladies in ethnic minorities experience even more discrimination, which is utterly wrong. The figure for lesbian and bisexual women is 15% as well. This is fundamentally wrong, and we must correct it: that is what we are here to do. A great many Conservative colleagues are here to support you—I mean the hon. Member for Barnsley Central. I would have been castigated for that, wouldn’t I, Mr Deputy Speaker? A few minutes ago you were wearing a dress, Mr Deputy Speaker! [Laughter.] Congratulations! This is woke him/her, is it? Oh my goodness, I’ve really had it now.
Well done the Women and Equalities Committee for further investigation into these findings. A good friend of mine suggested that I might sit on the Committee one day, although I am not sure whether people would want that to happen. In its report, the Committee recommended that enhanced protections should be introduced applying not just throughout pregnancy but, importantly, for six months thereafter.
It is often difficult enough for women to take all their parental responsibilities seriously. Let me clarify that: they do take these matters seriously, but it is difficult for them to achieve everything they want to achieve when they also have to work. Childcare costs are enormous. How many times have all of us sat in our constituency surgeries and heard women say, “I want to go out to work, but all I am doing when I am working is covering my childcare costs”? I am afraid we have a problem with the cost of childcare costs as well, but that, I suspect, is a subject for another debate. It is hardly easy for a woman anyway, looking after children and getting them to school, often as a single parent, and then trying to work as well. Balancing all that is pretty awkward. We in the House therefore have a duty to make it as easy as possible for women to balance their civic duty of bringing children up with working. I do not mean that they have to work, of course.
Let me now turn to the Bill’s two clauses. As we heard from the hon. Member for Barnsley Central—my hon. Friend—the first extends the Secretary of State’s existing powers so that additional protection can more easily be applied to an individual who has taken pregnancy leave, and the second seeks to improve the protections. Both those clauses make sense. The Bill makes sense. The Bill is why we are here. It is a very important Bill, and we have to get it through. I fully support it.
It is a pleasure to be here today, and to follow the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). As I am sure everyone will agree, private Members’ Bills are very much sought after, especially by Opposition Members, who do not have much opportunity to change the law—and I think the reason all of us came into politics was our wish to make a difference. My hon. Friend could have chosen any topic for his private Member’s Bill, and I was particularly pleased to note that he had picked this topic, although, cynically, I thought, “Is he going to benefit from this in some way?” I actually texted him last night to say, “Are you planning to have another child?” He was very quick to reassure me, saying that three was enough. He said that he was planning to get another dog, but, no, he was not planning to have another child, so there is no vested interest. I am very proud that a male Member of Parliament is bringing forward a Bill that will protect so many thousands of women who face maternity discrimination. He has earned the right to wear a T-shirt that says, “This is what a feminist looks like”, and I shall be sending him one in the post.
Although I am proud that my hon. Friend has brought this Bill to the House, I also feel a bit disappointed that this important legislation had to come through a private Member’s Bill. There have been many missed opportunities. It could have been brought to the House earlier and made into legislation. It could have been included in an employment Bill, which was mentioned in 2019 in the Queen’s Speech. Hopefully, this private Member’s Bill today will rectify an injustice that has survived for a very long time in our country.
I am passionate about this topic because I witnessed at first hand what maternity discrimination can do to people. After I had my children, I formed a close friendship with eight women locally whose children were around the same age as mine. Out of the eight women, four faced maternity discrimination, which, ultimately, ended up in redundancy when they went back to work. I watched what it did to their lives. The hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) mentioned that this was a family matter—that it was not just about the women. I saw that the effect was not just the financial hit to the family, but the mental health implications for the woman herself, for the husband and for the child. One of the babies started losing weight and not feeding properly because of all the stress that his mother was having to go through trying to deal with lawyers, trying to deal with the courts and trying to deal with, frankly speaking, a horrible employer.
The hon. Member is speaking very powerfully. What she says about how this affects the family is so true. Part of that stems from the outdated idea that women are the supplementary breadwinner from a family perspective. I refer back to what the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) said about women being older now before they have their children, which means that they have progressed further in their career. Actually, in many families, the women in the partnership—obviously we have same-sex partnerships as well—are earning the most money, so the financial impact of redundancy discrimination can be even greater for the family.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. The cost of living in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn is extremely high, and those families were very worried about what would impact them financially. Moreover, parents are meant to enjoy the time after they have a baby, but instead, these four women were fighting court cases and going to their employers. What really shocked me, as I was helping them and supporting them through it, was that it felt like the onus was on the women to prove maternity discrimination, whereas the employer did not seem to have much of an obligation to prove genuine redundancy. That worried me. I felt that there was more and more pressure on new mothers to say, “Actually, this is maternity discrimination. This is what happened when I left, and then when I came back, my job wasn’t there. You are not offering me another job.” That is why I feel so passionate about this Bill. If it shifts the onus on to employers to prove that they are not indulging in maternity discrimination, that would be a huge win for the country.
I wish to mention briefly the godmother of my children. She had a child and took only four months off—she had shared parental leave because she loved her job so much. Four days after going back to work, she was told that she was fired. Members of this House sit on the board of the organisation in which she worked. I went with the godmother of my child to her hearing. I felt frustrated that I could not stand up for her and prove maternity discrimination, because I did not have the law on my side. I felt like I failed her. The case was swept under the carpet. When I spoke to her later, she told me that when she eventually found a new job, she discovered that she was pregnant with her second child—this goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. She said that her first feeling when she found out was “total panic”—those were the words she used. She thought, “What’s going to happen? Am I going to be fired again? Should I tell my employer that I am having another child?” She said that she was so traumatised by what had gone before—dealing with lawyers, having to go back to her employer and fighting with her friends in the workplace—that she would not even take a lunch break in her new job, because she felt like they might discriminate against her when she told them she was pregnant.
Does the hon. Member agree that it is so short-sighted of that business to have done that? These women are hard-working, and they will be on maternity leave for a short period in comparison with the rest of their career. That business will lose skills and knowledge because of what happened.
I thank the hon. Member for her point. I do not just say this because she is the godmother to my children, but I have never met someone as hard-working and dedicated to her job as Anne. Her employer fired her mostly because she had taken the time off—they essentially penalised her for having a child—and that is why I am so passionate about the Bill. Penalising women for having children is not what our country should be focused on.
I will not speak for much longer, because I know there is a lot of interest in the Bill, but I want to touch briefly on covid. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central said, covid exacerbated every inequality. The TUC brought out a report about what had happened to expectant mothers and pregnant women during the covid pandemic, which found that 25% of new mothers and pregnant women said they had faced some sort of discrimination during covid, whether that was being made redundant, being forced to go on furlough or being told they should take sick leave because they were pregnant. Being pregnant does not mean someone is ill, but these women were being forced to take sick leave.
That report from the TUC is really important, as is all the analysis that has been done by Pregnant Then Screwed, which shows how we as a country have failed new mothers and pregnant women. By passing this legislation, we are signalling to the employers that we will not put up with this any more and that things have to change. In a situation where there is soaring inflation, childcare costs are rocketing and there is a cost of living crisis, we owe it as a House to new mothers to give them job security.
It is a pleasure to follow the powerful speech by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who gave examples of lived experiences. The experience she highlighted of her children’s godmother is horrendous. These experiences are brushed under the carpet, and that is disgraceful. I hope that, through the Bill, we will ensure that that does not happen again, because it cannot. I commend the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for bringing in the Bill. It should not be necessary to do so, but clearly it is. We have to do this, and it is the right thing to do. What has struck me today is the way in which we have come together as a House to support the Bill and its aims.
The background to this area astonishes me, and we have heard about it in contributions from Members across the House. In 2022, it should not be an impediment to someone to want to have a family, so that they cannot at the same time pursue a career—that is crazy. The hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central touched on the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and some of the figures in that were horrendous. When scaled up, the figures show that something like 54,000 women could experience discrimination as a result of either being pregnant or having had children. That astounds me.
I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. We see headlines these days about the lack of labour in the market and needing people to fill jobs, yet 54,000 people are either being made redundant or feeling the need to leave their jobs. That is a disgrace, is it not?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a disgrace. I think about my own experiences. Before I entered this place, I was a lawyer; that is what I trained to do. I was fortunate to work in some great firms and meet some fantastic, intelligent people. I know that people sometimes typecast lawyers as all sorts and do not trust us, but the people I worked with were fantastic, intelligent, hard-working and inspirational. However, let us look at the figures in the sector, and I am thinking in particular about the gender pay gap and how the issues we are debating contribute to that.
A London School of Economics study found that even though today 62% of new entrants into law firms are women, by the time we get to partner level only 28% of women are partners. That is absolutely crazy, given the proportion of women at entry level. What we are seeing is that women want to go and have a family and a personal life, which we are all entitled to, but they are being impeded. That might not all be down to the discrimination we have been talking about, but what I hope the Bill achieves is a cultural change. That is what we have to drive forward. It amazes me that we actually have to say this today, but a woman can have a career and a family at the same time, and an employer that enables that to happen.
Thinking of my own office, 80% of my staff are women. I have no problem if they need to take time out because they have to go and look after their family or collect their kids. To me, that is just basic decency as an employer. Surely it is a two-way street as an employer: what we do is get the talent and ability of the people we employ, and in turn we give something back.
My hon. Friend articulates it so well. She is absolutely right; shared parental leave is now such a key part of the broader landscape of family and employment rights—I do not want to just say maternity rights. We now know that the idea that mum goes off for a year and looks after the baby while dad works is ridiculous—it is rubbish. Both parents need to be playing an active role. We say that both parents need to be playing an active role in the life of their child, but if we have an employment structure that does not allow us to do that, then it is all good words but absolutely no action. My hon. Friend is right to draw out with her intervention the point about shared parental leave. What I am encouraged by is the recognition that shared parental leave needs to become the norm. From what I have seen at the moment, we are seeing that transition; we are seeing that more organisations are getting that. But there is still more to do.
The other point I will touch on is the societal impact. I talk about this from my personal experience. What we do not want to do is frame this in the context of mum, dad and 2.4 children, because actually families do not operate like that; there are many shades of grey. If someone is a single mother, or a single woman who is pregnant, and runs the risk of redundancy as a result of that, where does that leave them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the academic studies have shown that. We have the data showing the mental health impact on women who are having to worry about the risk of redundancy in their job. Of course it is not right—I am framing this in the context of a mother who is giving care to a child—that they should have to worry about their employment and everything that interconnects with that, and at the same time have to raise a child.
I have not had children, but for those who have—I am probably going to get interventions from hon. Friends across the House now—that initial period of time, and I will not say how long it is because I am sure it might vary, is probably one of the most stressful points in a mother’s life. They are getting to grips with realising that there is no handbook, and that everything they were told was going to go this way or that way actually does not—children do not work like that and there is no button to push. They are balancing that—a new person they have brought into the world and have to care for—and at the same time having to worry about how they are going to put food on the table, and go back into a career that they love, are passionate about and have maybe trained for years to do but now are at risk of losing because their organisation has potentially decided, “No, goodbye, see you later.” It seriously blows my mind that we even have to be here having this conversation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the six-month window at the end of this part of the Bill is also very important? I hate to use this phrase, but it is almost an “out of sight, out of mind” situation. When a woman is on maternity leave or a person is on shared parental leave, they are no longer in the workplace. They need that window of opportunity to get back into the workplace and into the swing of things, so they can show their value to the business.
My hon. Friend raises a good point, and I was hoping to touch on the transitional period later. We know how important it is to have the opportunity to transition back into the workplace and get back into the flow of things. Going through a life-changing event such as having a child changes the whole dynamic in someone’s life. I think that window is a really important opportunity for them. I hope I have not misunderstood my hon. Friend, but I agree that having that period of time means the individual is able to contribute in the way they know they can.
It all comes back to realising people’s potential. That is another part of this issue. It is not about saying to someone, “Okay, you’ve had a child; you’re done.” It is not like that at all. I have been very fortunate in the organisations I have worked in, out in what we call the real world—certainly more real at times than this place has been, particularly over the last week. I have seen organisations that get this issue, already have processes in place and are developing a culture that understands that it is not just about, for instance, the amount someone bills every month, but the contribution they make as a person.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) just described, the provision for that period of time is a crucial part of this legislation. We are on Second Reading today, but the Bill represents part of a broader landscape, and what my hon. Friend is saying on its provisions is vital. It comes back to a point that right hon. and hon. Members across the House have raised—including the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough, and a few hon. Members from a sedentary position—which is that we are currently losing skillsets from the workforce as a result of this issue. How daunting must it be for someone who has taken an extended period of time to go and have a child to come back and worry about not having the protections they should be afforded?
My hon. Friend is making some brilliant points. When employers sack pregnant women or women on maternity leave, as well as losing these skilled workers are they not also losing other women who might want to come into the workplace but have been put off by the treatment of their friends?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Why would someone want to join such an organisation, having seen how it operates and what its practices are? Talented individuals who know they have something to bring to the table, and know their worth, particularly in the climate we are in, are going to vote with their feet, are they not? And they should. They will be empowered to know that they can now go to organisations that will treat them as individuals who deserve respect. These organisations will understand that people are allowed to have a family life and balance. People should be able to have an employer who contributes toward that balance and is part of a partnership with them.
As I understand it, the whole point of the employer-employee relationship is that it is a contract and partnership—an understanding between two people in an organisation. The balance of power has at times gone completely off.
My hon. Friend is being generous with his time; I promise that this is my last intervention. Just to balance it out, he is absolutely right in what he just said, but this Bill is absolutely brilliant in bringing up one segment of the business sector. Many businesses already meet these and further requirements, but we need everybody to do the same, because that 54,000 figure should not exist.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To reiterate her point, I certainly do not want to give the impression that I am typecasting every business in that regard. As I have said, many businesses are getting this right and are going above and beyond—but that should not be above and beyond; it should be the standard.
I return to the idea that not every family is black and white, with 2.4 children and a mum and dad—I apologise to hon. Members for segueing away from that point. I speak as someone who was brought up in a single-parent family with a sole breadwinner who at times was working three jobs in order to put food on the table, and doing a part-time university degree. My mum went back to work six weeks after she had me, because she needed to, and it was similar with my sister. If someone is a sole parent on their own income and is pregnant with another child, or if there has been a family breakdown, the last thing they need is to have that threat of, “If I have a child, or if there’s anything connected to that child, I’m going to lose my job.” It does not bear thinking about—it blows my mind.
The societal impact of what we are talking about goes much further than the scope of the Bill’s provisions, and that is why it is so important. When we pass legislation in this House, particularly legislation such as this, it is not just about the Bill or the laws that we implement; it is about the message we send about society. We have seen that throughout history, particularly with legislation that has passed as a result of private Members’ Bills, such as women’s rights legislation. Lord Steel was a big advocate of women’s rights and the work of those organisations when he was on the Liberal Benches. We are sending a broader message that we need a society that understands that balancing work and family life is key.
My hon. Friend may not have had children yet; I have had six. One point that has not been talked about today is that when a woman is pregnant, it is often traumatic and frightening for her. It is often not an easy time. Some people may find it joyous—it is joyous, of course—but it is difficult for some women. If we put that on top of the fact that they might lose their jobs, it is just another pressure. I make that point because it is valid.
I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for that powerful intervention, to which I cannot add any more. He is right that it can be a traumatic experience. The Bill also seeks to address when someone has a miscarriage or loses a baby, which is a horrific time in the lives of both parents. It is important to consider how we support someone who has gone through that, particularly a woman, who feels that loss acutely and painfully. Unless someone has gone through that experience, I do not think that they can truly understand the pain that is felt as a result.
Again, talking about what this Bill does, its broader messages and what it seeks to achieve in supporting people at the most vulnerable points in their lives is absolutely key. Surely it is incumbent on all of us in this House to support people when they most need it and at the times in their lives when they are most vulnerable, particularly during pregnancy. That is the point in their life when a person is most exposed to both physical and mental challenges, as well as in other ways.
I am conscious that I should conclude my comments, but I really want to say that I am so proud to be able to support this Bill. I really do commend the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central for the work he has done on it. What this Bill seeks to do, as was articulated so brilliantly by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough, is to set what is currently seen as the exceptional standard as the norm, and that is right because it is what we should be doing.
The Bill will ensure that we do not lose brilliant people from our workforce. We should enable everyone who has the passion and drive and who wants to contribute to do so. We should back up the mantra we have been churning out from this House for decades about how we want to encourage the family base and encourage people to have families. Families are the core of society, and we should follow that up with tangible action. This place is very good at talking, but we need to follow through with tangible legislation. We must have the tangible means by which we can follow up on our good sentiments, and that is one thing this Bill does.
The Bill also ensures that in situations a bit like my mum’s and other people’s, when single mums are trying to get on with life and secure a life for their kids, whether or not they have been born, they can do so without worrying about how they are going to do it. They, too, can contribute, because this is surely about lifting people up, is it not? If they fear that they are going to lose their job or that they cannot progress up the ladder because they have had a child, that just should not be happening.
Finally, the Bill will ensure that, at what for many is the most exciting time of their lives, but also a time when they are at their most vulnerable and most exposed, people get the support that we should rightly be giving them. I fully endorse the aims of the Bill, and if the hon. Member for Barnsley Central is looking for someone to serve on his Bill Committee, I would be honoured to do so, because this is absolutely one of the reasons why I came into this place. [Interruption.] I can see he is already putting my name down—brilliant—so I expect the email in due course.
I just think back to the reason why I came into the place. I always say, whenever I am asked, that it is for people like my mum. With this Bill today, I think of her and what she went through as a single mum bringing me up and enabling me to get here. I will always owe her for that, because I would not be here had she not made the sacrifices that she had to make to get me—a lad from a council house who was told he probably would not amount to anything—to be a Member of Parliament. If we can ensure we get a few more young people like me from such backgrounds into this place by agreeing to the provisions of this Bill today, as far as I am concerned that is exactly why we are all here.
Gosh—follow that! That was extremely moving from my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey). I am grateful to him for his articulation of his experience, which was superb.
I very much thank the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for introducing this important Bill, which will ensure better protections for women and families with new babies. It was a pleasure to work with him, albeit briefly, to help drive this Bill forward in my former role as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and I would like to emphasise my continued full support for it.
The hon. Member talked about being proud of this Bill, and I feel sure he is quite right to be so. I certainly feel proud to have been involved. The current Minister has done a huge amount of work to support it, as indeed did the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully). He did a great deal of work on this, and also on many other Bills, which I will refer to a bit later. What we are looking at in the Bill is part of a matrix of workers’ rights, and it is right, good and proper that we are doing so.
It is shocking that, in 2022, new parents—mothers in particular—are still being forced out of their jobs through either dismissal or compulsory redundancy when others in the workplace do not face that, or are being treated so poorly that they feel they have no choice but to leave. A 2020 survey by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 11.2% of women on maternity leave had been made redundant, or expected to be made redundant, and 60.7% of them believed that their maternity leave was a factor in the decision. A more recent 2021 survey found that 20% of mothers have experienced discrimination from an employer.
I turn to the background to the Bill. Research published in 2016 commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that about one in nine mothers—11%—reported that they were either dismissed, made redundant or treated poorly and therefore had to leave their job. The publication of that research was followed by a Women and Equalities Committee inquiry and report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination in August 2016. One of its key findings was that mothers returning from maternity leave still faced discrimination. It therefore recommended that the Government should take steps to provide
“additional protection from redundancy for new and expectant mothers”.
It recommended that enhanced protections should apply throughout pregnancy and for six months after a woman’s return to work.
The Government published their response to the report in 2017. They acknowledged the scale of pregnancy and maternity discrimination experienced by new and expectant mothers and committed to
“consider further and bring forward proposals to ensure that the protections in place for those who are pregnant or returning from maternity leave are sufficient.”
The Committee said:
“We are persuaded that additional protection from redundancy for new and expectant mothers is required. The Government should implement a system similar to that used in Germany—
that was referred to earlier—
“under which such women can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. This protection should apply throughout pregnancy and maternity leave and for six months afterwards. The Government should implement this change within the next two years.”
In January 2019, the Government published a consultation seeking views on extending current redundancy protections for pregnant women and new parents. It recommended that the Government extend the current redundancy protection afforded to women during maternity leave under the Maternity and Paternity Leave etc. Regulations 1999 to cover a woman’s pregnancy and a period of up to six months after returning to work. The consultation also acknowledged that those returning from forms of leave comparable to maternity leave may have been away from work for long periods and therefore might similarly face discrimination or be prone to less favourable treatment.
The Government response, published in July 2019, made two commitments: to extend the redundancy protection period to include pregnancy and six months after a new mother has returned to work; and to provide the same enhanced protections to those returning from adoption leave and, crucially, shared parental leave.
It is unacceptable that anyone should be penalised for deciding to have a family. I welcome the fact that the Government have acknowledged the scale of pregnancy and maternity discrimination experienced by new and expectant mothers. Given the scale of the problem, it is clear that current legislation does not go far enough to protect new parents. We have talked about that in earlier speeches and interventions. The Bill caters for pregnant women working in all types of employment. There are women throughout the whole of the workplace, and all such people will benefit from the Bill.
I am particularly grateful that the Bill covers those on adoption leave and shared parental leave. The Bill dovetails wonderfully with the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill introduced in July by the Scottish National party hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), working closely with the Government and BEIS, as well as with the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), which has yet to have its Second Reading, and the shared parental leave Bill that we have discussed. There is a matrix being formed of support and business guidance to ensure that businesses are helped to do the right thing to support their employees, women and parents. There should be no barrier to any parent having the opportunity to get to know their child and bond with them at the earliest opportunity.
I welcome the fact that in 2019 the Government consulted on the proposals to extend redundancy protections for pregnant women and new parents. The majority of responses showed support for measures to extend the redundancy protection period once a new mother had returned to work, and to extend protections to adoption and shared parental leave. That consultation was undertaken in January 2019 and BEIS reported
“that 6 months would be an adequate period of ‘return to work’ for redundancy protection purposes”,
“that protection should be extended to parents who have taken adoption leave and shared parental leave”,
which I think is crucial.
The Government responded to the consultation on 22 July 2019, including a series of commitments to increasing redundancy protections in this area, first to
“ensure the redundancy protection period applies from the point the employee informs the employer that she is pregnant, whether orally or in writing;”
“extend the redundancy protection period for six months once a new mother has returned to work. We expect that this period will start immediately once maternity leave is finished;”
“extend redundancy protection into a period of return to work for those taking adoption leave following the same approach as the extended protection being provided for those returning from maternity leave—it will be for six months;”,
and fourthly, to
“extend redundancy protection into a period of return to work for those taking shared parental leave, taking account of the following key principles and issues: the key objective of this policy is to help protect pregnant women and new mothers from discrimination; the practical and legal differences between shared parental leave and maternity leave mean that it will require a different approach; the period of extended protection should be proportionate to the amount of leave and the threat of discrimination; a mother should be no worse off if she curtails her maternity leave and then takes a period of Shared Parental Leave; the solution should not create any disincentives to take Shared Parental Leave”.
The Bill before us would enact those crucial changes and clearly has the backing of many. I recognise the cross-party agreement we have seen across the House; in my opinion, we are at our best when we have that. The Bill is a welcome extension of the framework of workers’ rights in general and crucially allows family leave to be included in legislation. The German model is a good one, but I believe we must reach a compromise between the needs of businesses and the needs of families and pregnant mothers.
Looking at other models and the broader matrix my hon. Friend talks about, does she also believe that the legislative framework we are trying to bring in needs to be an evolving one? The likelihood is that we will need secondary legislation or even further primary legislation, but as part of that we must ensure that the framework continues to evolve and adapt as the workplace landscape changes.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. This Bill provides a framework that the Secretary of State can adapt to meet future needs for both pregnant women and those on adoption or shared parental leave. It sets up a matrix that can be filled as required.
In conclusion, I welcome this Bill. I truly believe it is something we should do and are able to do. I feel that the Minister will do a wonderful job in bringing this all together and I wholeheartedly thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central for bringing the Bill forward.
I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill, and I feel privileged to speak in this debate and support the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I am proud that there are a number of hon. Members on this side of the House who—they may not accept it—are feminists, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is important to recognise that this should not be about women’s rights; this is about wanting to ensure that our country supports all its employees, male or female. It is sad that in the 21st century we still have to introduce Bills such as this to give women protection in the workplace.
The Bill provides long overdue guarantees to pregnant women that they will not be dismissed during or shortly after pregnancy. It is also important to remember—we have not yet touched on this—that the Bill contains protection for those adopting children. A number of my gay friends have adopted children over recent years, and they will welcome this progressive Bill. This is not just about women, it is also about gay couples who are involved in adoption or a pregnancy, and it is important to highlight that—[Interruption.] I thank my right hon. Friend. Perhaps he would like to intervene.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about adoption, whether by a gay or heterosexual couple. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is right to say that women should not have to choose between a career and raising a family, but unfortunately, far too many women are forced to make that choice. In 2016, a survey commissioned by BEIS found that three in four women experienced some form of pregnancy or maternity discrimination. As we have heard, 54,000 pregnant women a year are dismissed from their jobs. That eye-watering statistic should shame this country, and I hope that if passed, the Bill will go towards rectifying that shameful record. It is wholly unacceptable, but nevertheless we see that story across the board.
In my constituency I hear the same stories again and again from women who are trying to balance family planning with their career. As I said in an earlier intervention, I am sponsoring my own private Member’s Bill to secure employment rights for those undertaking fertility treatment. That Bill seeks similar outcomes to those sought by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central. After all, this is 2022 not 1922, and people need to feel comfortable to choose to have a child—or more than one child—whether that child is conceived naturally or through fertility treatment, and no matter where they work and without fear of their career being negatively impacted.
That fear is all too familiar for women across the country. There are women who are trying to make a career, but who are conscious that they have a limited time in which they can have a child. As I said earlier, when I had my first child aged 35, the average age of the woman in the hospital I was in was 39. Women now have careers and want to establish themselves in their 20s and into their 30s, and they then try to have a child.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is also about ensuring empowered women leadership. In a previous life she was the leader of Westminster City Council—if I may say so, probably the best leader we ever had. In this era of political comebacks, who knows? Perhaps another comeback is on the cards. We have to empower women leaders to encourage others. Given her experience as a woman in leadership, how does she feel about women leaders empowering women having children later in their career to find balance?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember being pregnant with my first child, aged 35, holding down a full-time job and attempting to be elected to Westminster City Council. I was elected when seven months pregnant with my second child. Believe me, that was an interesting time. I do not think I would have been able to that without the support of my employer at the time Bradford & Bingley, and my group leader Sir Simon Milton, the late leader of Westminster City Council. I was very well supported but, sadly, not all women are. That is why this legislation is needed.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that women in leadership roles—and men, but women in particular—must support women in the generations below. We have been fortunate to get to a certain place in our careers, and it is our duty as feminists and human beings to support women—and men—coming through their careers.
I applaud the hon. Lady for having been a councillor and leader while having children, because if I had had children while I was a councillor, I could not have done it, given the hours we were doing. On the fact that her employers were good at letting her take time off or working around her pregnancy, is the problem not that we rely so much on good will? It should not be based on good will; there needs to be legislative change to achieve equal opportunity for everyone. Does the hon. Lady want to comment on that?
To be perfectly honest, it is really sad that we have to legislate. We have to because we must ensure that women have those rights, but I would prefer it if we did not have to. As part of my private Member’s Bill, I am trying to achieve a voluntary workplace pledge to ensure that employers support their employees who are going through fertility treatment. I wish that I did not need to do that, but I have to.
Returning to this brilliant piece of legislation, we have heard some excellent interventions and speeches from colleagues across the House. I am pleased that the Bill provides guarantees to women and their partners—there is an important clause in the Bill about partners during pregnancy. The Bill does not just cut off support at the birth of a child; vitally, women and their partners are supported during maternity leave, shared family leave and adoption leave.
I am a mother of two; my children are much older, in their late teens. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) that we parents never stop being parents; we never stop worrying or trying to do the best we can. I am sure that one day he will have the honour of being a parent. I have gone through pregnancy and the stress of being pregnant. I had a miscarriage before I successfully had my first child and I know the stress of that second pregnancy, worrying whether it will be successful.
As I said, I worked for Bradford & Bingley and was very supported. That was an example of good practice. Before I was on maternity leave with my first child I was a public relations manager; when I came back, they promoted me to head of PR and gave me support. I worked three days a week, but I felt I could not do my job effectively in three days, and the other two days I was trying to balance being a mum of a young baby and work. It was my decision to go to my line manager and say that I wanted to work four days, so that I could do my job properly and be a full-time mum on the other days. It supported me in that, and crucially Bradford & Bingley realised how dedicated I was to my job and, even though I was working four days, it chose to pay me for full-time work. That is an example of an exemplary employer. Sadly, it was a victim of the banking crisis and I lost my job. But that was 15 years ago and an example of how employers can support women through pregnancy, and support mothers—or fathers—of young children.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way, and it is always great to hear about personal experience. She represents the City of London as part of her constituency and we talked earlier in the debate about encouraging the brightest and the best, and those who have the right skillset. Does she agree that the Bill would ensure that the brightest and best—such as my hon. Friend, if I may say so—are able to stay in their roles in our financial centres and contribute to vital parts of our economy?
My hon. Friend makes another good point. The City of London can be a beacon of exemplary employer-employee relations, and I hope and expect that the Bill will ensure that small, medium and large businesses show respect to working women who become pregnant and are raising a family and ensure that they have the support they deserve.
It is important to remember that going back to work after maternity leave can be a daunting step for many women. I was fortunate that I had the support of my employer, but many do not. That is why I welcome the extension of workplace support for women to six months after their maternity leave. A recent study found that it takes an average of six months to adjust back to the workplace fully, for multiple reasons. It may also be that women are coming back to work after a second or third child, and trying to balance a large family with work can be very difficult.
Going back to work can mean adjusting to new staff members who have been employed while someone has been on maternity leave, and they have to start establishing new working relationships. New practices or policies may have been introduced in the workplace. It is important that someone coming back to work after six, nine, 12 months or even longer is supported in understanding new policies or working with new employees.
Going back to work is difficult: I did it myself a couple of times. Particularly with a first child, it is difficult to understand how to balance parenthood with a job. Most working mums will know that we feel guilty when we are at work and when we are at home. We need to find a balance, and it is crucial to support women at that stage in their lives.
To go back to my point about adoption, if someone has tried to have a child for many years but failed to do so and then chosen to adopt, it is a very difficult time in their life. Having time at home without the threat of being made redundant is crucial, and that also applies to gay couples in the same position.
Too often, companies wishing to cut back will choose a woman who is pregnant or on maternity leave as an easy target, but I think it is agreed across the House that that is categorically wrong. No woman should ever be disadvantaged because she is having a child or has had a child. In 2018, the Government commissioned a report on women and work after childbirth, which found that women and men experienced a large divergence in their careers following the birth of a baby. Fewer than 30% of women are in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90% of fathers. That is a clear example of how giving birth can affect a woman’s career chances. In the 21st century, it is a shocking statistic. I firmly believe that we must encourage women to feel empowered when they have a child, not anxious, not fearing that their job prospects are now weakened or that they may be at the top of the list to be made redundant.
There is no doubt that employers sometimes handle pregnancy and maternity poorly. I was appalled to read the finding of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that one in five pregnant women experience harassment at work owing to their pregnancy or flexible working requests. The commission also found that more than 50,000 women a year felt forced out of their jobs by poor treatment. We should note that this is also an issue of retention. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) referred to the need to retain women for productivity purposes. That is crucial: we cannot afford, in this country, to lose female talent on account of poor protection. It is also important to note at this time that the birth rate is falling, and we need women to have babies for the sake of our economy—not today, not tomorrow, but in 10, 20, 30 and 40 years’ time. The Bill is not just about the immediate; it is about our country’s future.
Among women with careers, we have seen the subsequent loss in earning and career progression that is termed the motherhood penalty. What kind of country do we want to be if we put a price on someone’s career because of motherhood and call it a penalty? It is not a country that I want to live in, and it is not a country in which I want my daughter—who is now 18—to grow up and start her career. It means that employers are losing female talent at a time when we need to retain talent, both male and female.
Further data reinforces the concern about gender inequality, with an emphasis on the penalty that maternity represents for women’s salary and careers. It is crucial that we provide viable solutions to rectify that, and the Bill is certainly one solution. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) mentioned the gender pay gap. The fact is that women can feel, and indeed are, penalised for having children, and it can affect their ongoing ability to increase their pay, move up the career ladder and enjoy the benefits that that brings.
Births are falling in this country. In the last 10 years we have seen a drop in the birth rate in England and Wales of nearly 16%.
My hon. Friend has just mentioned the birth rate and the wider picture. I know that, since her days on the council, she has been passionate about building a strong sense of community in Westminster, but people in this area generally have careers and are not growing families. Many of them cannot have children, given the demographic. That will surely have an impact on communities, and the sense of community, in areas such as my hon. Friend’s in Westminster.
My hon. Friend has made another excellent point. This is about ensuring that we encourage families to grow, and encourage women and gay couples either to have children or to adopt them, because it is families who create a community. As my hon. Friend says, in central London having families of all types—whether they are single households, older people or growing families—is crucial to community cohesion. Whether a woman is living in central London, the midlands, the north, Scotland or Wales—whatever part of the country she lives in—she must feel protected in having a child, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
The Government have said that family life and the economy will suffer unless workplace practices are brought into the 21st century. We need to take that and staff retention seriously. One of the last things that I did as the leader of Westminster City Council, before I came to this place, was to change our parental leave policy. I introduced a policy whereby there was full pay for 12 months for people who were either on maternity or paternity leave and shared parental leave. That sent the message to staff that they were so important to keeping the council going and that they were part of its success. In the year following that announcement, there was a huge increase in people having children in Westminster City Council, and that is a very good thing.
We simply cannot afford to let women be sidelined or penalised because they are pregnant and want to start a family. I believe that there is no greater or more important job in this world than raising a child, but the economic and emotional burden on parents can be equally as tremendous. We need to support our workforce, our women in the workforce and our families. For those reasons, I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.
It is a great privilege to follow some wonderful speeches, not least the one by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken). I very much support the Bill, which plugs an important gap in our employment protections, and I commend the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for introducing it. I welcome the cross-party support today and it is good to see the Minister in his place, ready to give the Government’s support.
The improvements in protection against redundancy for women who are pregnant or returning from maternity leave and people who are returning from shared parental leave or adoption leave are very welcome. We have heard from a number of colleagues about the unfairness that is still being perpetuated in the workplace. The Bill will help to resolve those matters. I believe that employment protection is one of the significant achievements of this Parliament. In this country, we have one of the most comprehensive systems of employment protection in the world. I am proud to have voted for a number of improvements to those protections over the years and I look forward to voting in favour of this one.
Ensuring fairness at work is one of the hallmarks of a modern economy and a civilised society. There is inevitably a power imbalance between employers and employees; there is economic power that rests with the employer. It is right for the legal system and the state to step in to help to rebalance that relationship and ensure that there are decent standards of treatment in the workplace. As many have pointed out, it is important to support young families and ensure that they are not subject to unfair treatment. The Bill provides a sensible compromise. I cannot see that the impact on employers would be excessive or negative. Indeed, as we have heard, ensuring high standards for women in the workplace potentially gives employers much better access to a wider labour pool, because it means that they are more attractive to talented and experienced women recruits, so there are real positives not just for employees, but for employers.
It is important to recall the point that I made in my intervention, which is that, in this country, we have a productivity problem. We have been grappling with that for the past 10 years. Part of the problem is due to people who are economically inactive. The Bill helps to ensure that women have the opportunities in the workplace that they deserve and that they are not forced back into economic inactivity. This is one of a range of measures that could help us to improve our productivity by getting the most from one of our greatest assets—women in the workplace and women in our population.
We can all be proud to be supporting another step in the road towards genuine gender equality. Like workplace fairness, this Parliament can be proud of the achievements of the past 100 years in remedying injustice dealt out to women. There is a debate about exactly when that started, but the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 was one of the first landmark decisions, which sought to remove the institutionalised discrimination and unfair treatment which, for millenniums, had characterised this country and others around the world. This Parliament can take some credit for many items of legislation over the years, which have, in essence, been dismantling the patriarchal systems that had been in place in previous centuries. The reality though is that there is still more to do, which is illustrated by the need to introduce a Bill such as this, and by the examples that we have heard today of the adversities that women continue to face.
I was particularly struck by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster that the career paths of men and women after women become mothers are still so dramatically different. It is very welcome that we have seen the gender pay gap close in many respects, but there are still hurdles that mothers are asked to jump over in relation to their careers that their male competitors simply are not. I am pleased that we are taking a step towards addressing that, but I am sure that these matters will return to Parliament in many different ways over the years to come. This task of securing a truly fair society, where men and women have equal opportunities and are treated equally, continues to adapt as new challenges become apparent.
I close by reflecting on the fact that we are tremendously lucky to live in a country that has respect for the rule of law, that ensures that workers are treated fairly and cannot be summarily dismissed and, in particular, cannot be lightly dismissed in the event of pregnancy, maternity leave, or the return from maternity leave. It is important, on an occasion such as this, to reflect on the fact that, in many parts of the world, women are not so lucky. One of the most notorious examples of this is, of course, Iran, where we see, on a daily basis, women and girls out protesting and demanding fair treatment. They continue to face institutionalised discrimination in terms of their right to travel, their consent to marriage and, in many areas, their right to decide what they wear. I have found those protests inspiring. I hope that they do lead to democratic change in Iran. It is a place that has a shocking human rights record, and both men and women have suffered at the hands of a cruel regime.
This legislation is an illustration of the fact that we in this country take fairness seriously, we in this country believe that people should be treated fairly at work, and we in this country believe that women are entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunities. I commend this Bill to the House.
I do not normally come to this place on a Friday, because I normally have better things to do in my constituency, but this Bill is so important that I felt I had to be here today. I just cannot imagine what it is like to be a woman at work who gets the wonderful news that she is pregnant, goes home and tells her partner, “I’ve got some great news,” and they are very happy and tell their family, then the following day she may come home and say, “I’ve got some bad news: I’ve lost my job,” or, “My firm don’t want me any more; I’m being discriminated against.” To think that that happens in this day and age is absolutely shocking. I cannot imagine it.
As the law stands, employers cannot make mothers redundant while they are on maternity leave, but under this excellent Bill that protection will be extended through pregnancy and for six months after returning to work. That is brilliant. We do discriminate against women in this country—I know we do—and especially young women and young single parent women. I was a single parent for many years—17 years—with two children, but I did not come up against the barriers that women do. I know that, because when I went for a job, they never even asked me if I was a single parent; they assumed that I was just a man looking for a job, and I got the job. I know full well that when women go for a job, employers probe and poke their nose into business that, quite frankly, is not theirs. I know that employers look at those women and think, “She’s a single parent—she’s going to have time off. Her kids have got to go to school. They’re going to be ill. She might get pregnant again.” Those are the barriers that us men do not normally face.
The contributions today have all been outstanding, as have the interventions. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for bringing this Bill to the House, because it is so important. He once said:
“No one should be penalised for having a family, but pregnant women and new mums face grotesque levels of discrimination in the workplace.”
He is bang on. He went on to say:
“This bill will help tackle the appalling injustices they face. From the extortionate cost of childcare to difficulty in finding flexible hours, balancing family life with a job is already hard enough.”
That sums it up for me.
My hon. Friend talked about the fact that men do not face the same questions when being interviewed for jobs. Given the fact that he is saying that and that the Bill is being introduced by a male Member of the House, does he agree that it is so important that men stand side by side with women, to ensure that women have workplace rights?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not right; men do not face these questions and this discrimination, and we forget that. It is, unfortunately, still a man’s world. I sometimes get slated for saying that, but it is—let us be honest. There are so many barriers for women in the workplace, in life and in general, and this is just another barrier that they have to come up against time and again. It is quite shocking that we are having this conversation in 2022, but we are here having it, and hopefully the Bill will be passed—I am sure it will—and will give the extra protection that women in this country need.
I just hope that there are plenty of women listening to this today who will know that we are on their side and are going to make changes, and can have that confidence. We have talked about women being sacked from the workplace because they are pregnant or may get pregnant, and the skilled workforce that employers lose through that. They are not only losing skilled workers and their potential to go on to be brilliant employees, but saying to the marketplace out there, “We don’t want you. You’re a woman, and we don’t want you working here.” How wrong is that, when 50% of the population in this country are women? I think we are getting close to that in this place—we are getting more and more women here—and rightly so. Why should women not work here and why should they not do all the top jobs? It is an absolute disgrace.
The most important job that women do on this earth is to have children. Without them, I would not be here. They have children and they do a fantastic job, but to balance that with having a career, running a home, being married or having a partner, or whatever they have to multitask. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said he is not very good at multitasking—I can vouch for that because I have been in his office quite a few times this week, and he cannot multitask at all. Women play an incredibly important part in society.
I had to intervene on my very good friend, but I must say that I think I am seriously lucky to be a man. Frankly, I do not have to put up with all the rubbish that women sometimes have to go through, so I am very glad, and I think my hon. Friend would probably say the same, would he not?
I completely agree with my right hon. and gallant Friend, who makes a really good point.
We know this happens: the majority of single parents in this country are ladies—women—and the hurdles they have to go over on a daily basis just to get by in life are hard enough. As a Government and as a society, we are trying to get more people back into the workplace. We have a skills shortage and there are lots of jobs in the economy—there are over 1 million vacancies, and we need to plug that gap—but what are we doing in such situations? We are putting up obstacles and barriers, as we sometimes do to disabled people, and making it so difficult for them to get back into the workplace.
We are missing a trick, and it is costing the economy. It is also costing employers, because if they are not recruiting or keeping in the workplace a lady who has had children or is on maternity leave, they are missing a trick. They are not upskilling that person, and if they are not retaining that person, they have to go out and recruit somebody else and spend thousands and thousands of pounds getting them up to speed when that asset—that employee—is already there. We need to stop missing that trick, use a little bit more common sense in the workplace, get behind our brilliant women in the UK, because they are brilliant, and give them all the support they need.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important to do this at a time when the cost of living is causing so much pressure on family finances? The last thing young families need at this point is for women to be forced out of the workplace because of unfair treatment.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. As I say, we have an abundance of talented women in this country, and many of them are sitting in here today—I had to say that, did I not? We are putting up barriers and obstacles to these women, but they want to go out there, get into the workplace, earn good money, have good careers and contribute to society, and it is only right that we remove all these barriers in the workplace. So I welcome the Bill and wholeheartedly support it. I am going to shut up now because I have said enough, and I know there are one or two more speakers and the Minister wants to have his say about this.
I never thought I would hear myself say the words, but it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). It is always good when there is such consensus across the Chamber on Fridays in this place, and I think it is something we could perhaps do with a little more of at other times of the week.
I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on his success in the ballot to secure the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill. I admit I am jealous, but I really want to commend him for the choice of subject, especially given the fact, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said, that he as a man is introducing this Bill.
I also commend the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who has been congratulated by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, for all her previous work to bring forward a similar Bill. I mention my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), who raised the matter in a Westminster Hall debate last year, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans), who had hoped to be here today but unfortunately cannot be. I thank him for giving me some good pointers for my speech. I commend the work of Maternity Action, the maternity rights charity, for its work to advance women’s rights during pregnancy for many years.
For far too long, women have been discriminated against in many ways—in society generally, in employment particularly and when pregnant specifically. Looking round the Chamber, I can confidently say that I am the oldest woman here. When I was pregnant with my first child in 1974, I was discriminated against in the most horrendous way. I found out that I was pregnant about a month before I was due to start a job in the civil service setting up jobcentres on the east coast of Scotland. The arrangement was that I had to phone and say that I was ready to start, so I had a very pleasant chat with someone—I cannot remember the details; it was a long time ago—and mentioned in the conversation that I was pregnant. They literally said, “Goodbye,” and put the phone down, and I never heard from the civil service again. That was standard operating procedure in those days; the civil service did not do anything wrong that I could chase them up in law for or anything. That was just the end of what might have been a wonderful civil service career.
When I have told that story to younger people, such as my daughters, my daughters-in-law and my students when I taught at West Lothian College, I got the same gasp that I just heard in the Chamber. We have moved on—my daughter and my two wonderful daughters-in-law have never experienced anything like that—but I am acutely aware of the cultural change that is necessary in this area. Although there are some laws that prohibit direct discrimination against women, there needs to be cultural change to bring people on board.
I would like to think that with this private Member’s Bill and the Government’s support, we are working our way towards eliminating another form of discrimination against women, especially when they are pregnant. They are vulnerable enough. My daughter is pregnant at the moment and I am pleased to say that she is in secure employment and is unlikely to face that kind of pressure. The Bill is an important step towards achieving that and providing protection for pregnant women against them being treated less favourably than men in similar circumstances—well, there will not be a similar circumstance for men.
At this point, I must say that I agree entirely with the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). In my first public speaking contest—in the days when we talked about sexual equality—I gave a speech saying that I did not want to be equal to men because I thought that women were much better. I have not changed my mind much about that, and it is nice that he has the same view on the matter. It is important to recognise that many hon. Members, some of whom I have mentioned, have supported this work. The cross-party basis on which the Bill is being debated is a wonderful demonstration of how, if we pull together, we can make things better for our constituents and others across the United Kingdom.
In 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published research, some of which we have heard about already today, showing that one in 20 new mothers are made redundant during pregnancy or maternity leave or on their return to work. That shocking statistic reveals a disturbing level of disregard on the part of some employers for the needs of women. The following year, the Taylor review into modern working practices highlighted further research confirming that the majority of employers expressed a wish and willingness to support pregnant women and new mothers, and the report commented favourably on the finding that more than 80% of employers felt it was in their interest to support pregnant women and new mothers.
However, women might be less enamoured of the finding that at least one in 10 employers, and possibly as many as one in five, are not willing to support pregnant women and new mothers. We have heard some terrible examples of that today. The detailed findings show a disturbing level of acceptance among employers and managers that discrimination against women on the basis of their decision to bear children or their caring responsibilities is acceptable.
All the following views were endorsed by at least one third of the employers and managers interviewed. Many of those interviewed claimed to have seen at least one pregnant woman “take advantage” of her pregnancy and regarded pregnancy as putting “an unnecessary cost burden” on the workplace. That is shocking, and it is a cultural attitude that we all must strive to change. Given that those attitudes and views are widely held among employers and managers, is it any wonder that pregnant women and new mothers are so widely discriminated against in the workplace?
Between employers and Governments, effective arrangements must be put in place to support women and their families through the potentially life-changing process of pregnancy and rearing children. However, under current arrangements women have enhanced protection from redundancy only until they return from maternity leave, and the evidence—some of which I have heard here today—is that that protection is not working. It means only that a woman on maternity leave can be made redundant, but must be offered an alternative job above anyone else being made redundant if another job exists, which can prove a very big caveat, and the current law does not stop employers using pregnancy as an excuse for a piece of cost cutting.
That is clearly demonstrated by the case of Jessica—not her real name—whose story was disclosed by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. Jessica had a well-paid job, became pregnant and was made redundant on the day she was due to return from maternity leave. The day before she was due back, which was during lockdown, she received a text telling her not to go in to the office but to be available for a video call with a senior manager. During that call, she was told that she was being made redundant. She had been back at work for all of 30 minutes. She is convinced that the firm simply wanted to cut its staff budget and that, by going on maternity leave, she had unknowingly self-selected for redundancy. What a way to treat a member of staff—and what a welcome into the world for her child, with a family now burdened by unaffordable debt and forced to move out of their home, and a mother whose mental health and career were in tatters.
As an employee of the company, Jessica might have had some chance of arguing her case for discrimination, although the costs and hurdles associated with attempting that would put most people off. On the other hand, Mandy, whose case was highlighted by the Taylor review, had no chance of taking out a legal case, because legal protections in the UK are so heavily and deliberately weighted against workers who are not direct employees. Mandy had worked for a bank on a zero-hours contract for several months. However, when she informed her employer that she was pregnant, her hours were reduced to zero; in effect, she was summarily dismissed with no recourse. Mandy is one of those pregnant women and new mothers who have borne the brunt of the increasing casualisation of the UK workforce. She found out that employment status—whether as a direct employee, self-employed, or through other ways of employing people—is important because that dictates entitlement to key maternity and paternal rights. Those in the growing number of insecure forms of employment can find their rights greatly diminished, reducing or eliminating their entitlements to maternity and parental pay and leave, health and safety protection, time off for antenatal appointments, and rights to return to work.
I know that this is not covered by the Bill, but it must be highlighted. The “Insecure Labour” report produced in 2020 by Maternity Action spells out some of the implications of casualised or insecure work on women workers, pregnant women and new mothers. Heather Wakefield, the chair of Maternity Action said that the report
“paints a shocking picture, which requires swift and radical action by Government, employers and trade unions to halt the damaging impact of casualisation on the working lives and wellbeing of pregnant women and new mothers.”
These cases are not isolated incidents; we have heard plenty about that this year.
I commend the hon. Member for Barnsley Central. I think that the parts of his speech concerning German law were new to most of us, and they were really interesting and useful. I know that this private Member’s Bill does not go into that, but it can be a really good start. It is really important that we can look at improving working rights altogether, especially for women, but for everyone in the UK.
I am not an economist, and I do not really want to be, but it does not make economic sense for businesses to discard women who have huge skills and bring so much to the workforce. There is a real economic case for retaining members of staff—it has been proved over and over again—as they can be role models for other young women who want to come in and they can help businesses succeed. They are well worth retaining.
I do not think I need to say this, but, in case of doubt, I fully support the Bill and would be happy to serve on its Committee. As I have said, I applaud the hon. and gallant Member, and I thank everyone who has spoken so well and so passionately in the debate.
I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on bringing this important Bill to the House for debate. I know that he has worked closely with civil servants and previous Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to produce a workable Bill that can pass through the House.
The Bill before us has cross-party support, as was evident from the contributions. Those of us who have been in this place for any length of time know how difficult it is to get cross-party support—especially on a private Member’s Bill—so that is a testament to his hard work. I know that hon. Members across the House will join me in congratulating him on that.
May I also thank the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), who is in her place, for the fantastic work she has done in this area? I know about that from conversations we have had. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) is not in her place, but I understand that she has done a considerable amount of work in this area too. I think it is important to record that here.
I also want to pay thanks to other hon. Members to their contribution to the debate. Before I do, I have to say that I feel the Conservative Whips today will be very pleased with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central, as he has nominated a number of Members to take the somewhat burdensome task at Committee stage off their hands. He did it in a masterful way; I was sat admiring and learning how it was done.
I want to genuinely thank hon. Members from across the House. The hon. Member for Loughborough made the point that we are at our best when we come together. It is absolutely right that we come together on matters of huge importance. I thank the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who, in his customary style of combining humour, passion and some very serious points, spoke very well. We will all take away his fine point about women being far superior to men. It is certainly a point I would never disagree with. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) spoke very passionately and gave real-life examples from her constituency that highlighted the broader impact on families and children.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) gave a very passionate speech. He spoke from personal experience but also made the good point that good employers would actually welcome this legislation for all the right reasons. I have already thanked the hon. Member for Loughborough, but she rightly pointed out that this legislation extends to shared parental leave and adoption leave, and quite rightly so. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) cited constituency examples and spoke of her personal experience, and I think everybody would agree about the importance of the cases she referenced.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) quite rightly highlighted the benefits to employers as well as employees. She made a valuable point about the increased productivity that this measure will clearly bring. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) made a pertinent point, the theme of which ran through all Members’ contributions: it is tragic that we are in the year 2022 and having to address this form of discrimination. It is shocking. Tragically, he is right that the discrimination in the workplace starts way before pregnancy. He highlighted many important points.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) cited a harrowing personal experience with the civil service. It was from the past, but she was visibly still quite moved, naturally and understandably. She gave equally moving examples from her constituency.
I am very grateful to all the hon. Members who have spoken today. They all spoke well and highlighted the importance of this Bill, which seeks to extend the protections from redundancy afforded to those taking maternity leave, adoption leave or shared parental leave beyond the date on which their leave ends, and to strengthen the protections afforded in pregnancy. As we have heard, these protections are desperately needed.
Maternity Action, Unison, the TUC and others have found that many employees are still being unfairly dismissed through redundancy. A number of hon. Members rightly cited reports such as the 2015 Equality and Human Rights Commission finding that 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their job each year by being made compulsorily redundant or being treated so poorly that they have no option but to leave. Rather alarmingly, the Women and Equalities Committee found there is more discrimination and poor treatment of pregnant women and mothers at work than a decade ago, which should shock the House.
If those figures were not alarming enough, the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, which has been referenced by a number of Members, found in 2020 that more than one in 10 pregnant women had either been made redundant or expected to be made redundant, with almost two in three believing their pregnancy and motherhood was a factor. The TUC has reported that some women had been forced to take sick leave or unpaid leave because their workplace was no longer safe for them during their pregnancy and because their employer had refused to make the required adjustments.
As everyone who spoke before me said, it is frankly disgraceful that, in 2022, there is still discrimination against new mothers and mothers-to-be in the workplace, and that bad bosses feel they can flout employment law with impunity and without consequence or retribution. It could not be clearer that the existing protections for pregnant women fall far below the standard we should expect in this country.
With more than 15 million women aged 16 and over in employment between April and June 2022, with the female employment rate increasing to 72%—many of whom may choose to take periods of leave to have a family—and with the right to family life being a key human right, protecting those who choose to start and raise a family from unfair dismissal must be a key priority for this House and this Government. That is why Labour’s new deal for working people, published last year, makes a firm commitment to enshrine stronger protections in law to make it unlawful for an employer to dismiss a woman who is pregnant, while also extending statutory maternity and paternity leave.
I am pleased that not only has my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central introduced this Bill but that the Government support his proposal, even if it has tragically taken us more than three years since the consultation to see this legislation. Although the Opposition Front Bench team support this Bill, we have a number of concerns about the shortcomings of Government policy that will weaken the Bill’s protections. The Minister will know from the tone of my speech that it is made in good faith. The strength of this debate shows the passion on both sides of the House to make this Bill as strong as possible and to afford as many protections as possible.
I am concerned about the Government’s plans to raise awareness among employers of the changes the Bill will make to regulations. Employers of all sizes must be made aware of their existing statutory responsibilities to those who are pregnant and those who are taking maternity, adoption or shared parental leave, even before we get to the strengthened protections that my hon. Friend proposes. As we have heard, many employers are flouting the current protections either deliberately, knowing they can get away with it, or inadvertently because they simply do not know what protections the law affords to pregnant women and those taking parental leave. It is clear that if we are to make progress, in my view, the Minister should have a hands-on approach to regulation and must ensure that employers are made aware. I hope the Minister is able to confirm today the actions that they will be taking to spread awareness among employers of existing and new protections—that point has been made by several Members today.
The issue of upholding and enforcing rights also takes me neatly on to my next point about the current backlog in employment tribunals. As has been pointed out, the Bill today and the regulations set to be made by the Minister will not apply a comprehensive blanket ban on making a pregnant woman or those on parental redundant, but only strengthen their chances of making a successful claim of unfair dismissal through the employment tribunal system. As anyone who has tried to hold their employer to account through the employment tribunal system for a breach of employment law will know, the situation is beyond dire. With a backlog of over half a million single and multiple claims, it can be up to two years after a claim is made that someone will have their case heard.
Faced with such a backlog, it is simply no wonder that such a high proportion of people withdraw their claims. If the Minister intends for the protections afforded by the Bill and forthcoming regulations, he must tackle that backlog as a matter of immediate priority.
Those made redundant and unfairly dismissed from their employment while pregnant or on parental must also have much greater flexibility in making an employment tribunal claim. That is why the Opposition’s new deal for working people proposes extending the time limit on bringing an employment tribunal claim so that no one is forced into making a hasty claim to a tribunal before allowing ACAS and their trade union to reach a settlement with their employer, so that anyone who has recently had a child does not have to face the additional pressures of making a claim in those hectic first three months when, as everyone will agree, caring for their child comes before their own wellbeing.
As has been pointed out, the Bill does not propose imposing a blanket ban on redundancies during the new extended period that the Minister must define in secondary legislation. That leaves real concerns that it will not go far enough in stopping discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace and those on parental leave, nor sufficiently protect them from redundancy. There are concerns that it will not be clear enough to employers.
As the Minister knows, and as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central, the German model offers a clear and pragmatic standard that the UK can adopt and adjust. My hon. Friend has gone through the German model point for point, so I do not seek to repeat that; it is on the record and Members were here when he made those points. In all sincerity, I would be grateful for a response from the Minister as to why the Government cannot adopt that model, beyond claiming that it would be too difficult to implement.
The qualifying period to obtain the additional protection offered after a period of leave is also a worry. That point, as I understand it, has not been made here today, but I believe it is equally important, as those most in need of protection are those who are forced to tragically curtail their leave before the sixth week because of personal, often financial, circumstance. These individuals should not be excluded from the extended protections being offered because of their circumstances and their need to curtail their leave. I hope the Minister will look again at this issue when regulations bringing it into effect are being drafted.
Finally, I wish to raise my concerns around the legislation itself. Although the Bill is the first step in introducing stronger protections for those on parental leave, the journey culminates in the Secretary of State making regulations that apply and specify the protections, and, as far as I can see, there is nothing compelling him to introduce these regulations by a certain date. Having covered this brief for some time, I am more than a little used to the Government promising action and, tragically, not following through on many important issues. For example, the ethnicity pay gap reporting keeps getting kicked into the long grass, and the legislation that mysteriously enters into the “in due course” world never seems to come back.
Tragically, some private Members’ Bills rarely make it on to the statute book because the Government refuse to make time for them in Committee. I therefore hope the Minister will confirm the date for the Bill to pass through its Committee stage. I know that there may a provisional date, but it would be nice to have that confirmation.
All these concerns could have been addressed if the Government had only introduced and passed an employment Bill, as they said they would almost three years ago. It was first announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2019 and then pushed back to a point “in due course”—that seems to be when so many of the plans from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will take place—and now seemingly has been scrapped, with no mention of it in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. An employment Bill would have provided a means for the Government to strengthen protections for pregnant women and those on parental leave years ago, as well as so much more.
In closing, I want to be clear that we absolutely support the Bill before us today and applaud the work that has been done by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central. Again, I thank hon. Members from the across the House for the spirit in which this debate has been conducted today and for their powerful contributions. I hope, given the strength of feeling and the sincerity with which we have all spoken today, the Minister will look at making concessions with regards to the points that I have raised, particularly around ensuring that the regulations that are made can be upheld and enforced.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). I thank him for his contribution and his questions, which I will do my best to cover. If I do not, hopefully, we can cover them separately as we move forward.
I truly thank the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for bringing this important legislation forward. I thank, too, all of the Members who have spoken on this important matter today, including: the hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), with his incredibly powerful and moving comments, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I will come to some of the key points as I progress with my speech.
I wish to echo the thanks of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central to my predecessors. I often say that anyone who takes on these roles stands on the shoulders of giants. I am very fortunate to be building on the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), whose work has been phenomenal, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), with whom I have worked closely and whose work has been even more phenomenal in helping us get to this point today.
My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet both predicted what I am about to say: I am pleased to confirm that the Government support the Bill. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central in Committee. We have talked a lot about recruitment; he did an amazing job of recruiting many members to his Committee—hopefully more women than men, although I was not keeping count.
I am pleased to support the Bill from a personal perspective. I am the father to an inspirational daughter; the husband to an incredible and smart wife; the son to a loving and hardworking mother; my sister is a cancer survivor and has dealt with challenges with such kindness and strength; and I am an uncle to beautiful nieces. The Bill is trying to support women and girls for the future to feel true equality in their lives and in the workplace. It certainly signals that to them all.
The Bill is another example of how Parliament works so well together. When we support and challenge each other, we get the best legislation and we show the country that we are all compassionate and believe in getting the legislation right. That often means that things take a bit more time, but the trouble is the very small number of unscrupulous businesses. We heard moving comments from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) about how when people think they can get away with things, sadly they do, and in some of the worst instances. Most businesses are honourable and do the right thing, but we have to ensure that there are no holes in the legislation, because those who want to get around doing the right thing will always find those holes. It is right that the legislation takes time and it is fabulous that we are discussing it.
I know what a crucial issue pregnancy and maternity discrimination truly is and the pernicious effect that it can have on both the immediate and longer term prospects for women in work. More generally, it puts a drag on equality and productivity. We heard earlier about the challenges not just to the workplace and to the economy but to mental health. The Bill will make a difference not just in the workplace but at home, so that people truly have a work-life balance. That means not having to worry about things that they should not need to worry about.
My hon. Friend has done incredible work on her private Member’s Bill. Officials and I are looking at it very closely. I applaud her for her work not just on that but generally. She is a staunch, hardworking Member for her constituents. That is why I am pleased to be here and to have taken on this important portfolio, for as long as it may last—hopefully years rather than days.
Irrespective of who is at the Dispatch Box, the Government are committed to ensuring that the UK is the best place in the world to work and grow a business. We need a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. Let me put on record why the Government support the legislation. When we talk about female economic empowerment, we tend to talk about positive facilitative policies: parental leave and pay, flexible working, women on boards and so on—policies looking to drive positive action to achieve better outcomes.
We are taking huge strides to deliver equal opportunities for women in the UK. They include mandatory pay gap reporting, the largest ever cash increase in the national living wage in 2022 and passing the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. It is pleasing to see that nearly 2 million more women are in work since 2010. The number of women on FTSE 350 company boards is up by over 50% in just five years. The number of women in FTSE 100 company boardroom roles has jumped to 39% from 12.5% 10 years ago. There is a higher percentage of women on FTSE 350 company boards than ever before. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West pointed out however, there are some very negative statistics that we need to address.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. When it comes to Ministers who should be in position, he is 1,000% one of them and I am so glad to see him in his place on the Front Bench. He has just pointed out that the statistics in other areas are not great: can he give a commitment that the Government are 100% determined to ensure that we get those stats up? The fact that in the legal profession only 28% of partners are women is not good enough. If 60% of employees are women but only 28% make partner, that is nowhere near enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. Equality is not just for the sake of equality: it improves things on every level—the economy, the workplace, the challenge in boardrooms and many other areas. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend mention that 80% of his office staff are women, because that is a powerful example of how we in this place can lead from the front. We talked earlier about mental health. I have noticed in the past few years how people here have talked much more about mental health, and now it is talked about much more in the workplace and in society. That is a really important example of this House leading. I remember a few years ago in 2015 when I had a small role in helping to support, in a professional capacity, a report by the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. It looked at how we could encourage more women into the workplace and, in particular, more women into politics. We need to have that at the front of our minds at all times.
On International Women’s Day in March this year, we announced a package of initiatives to help to open up more opportunities to women and to boost the post-pandemic recovery, including by promoting transparency and fairness in pay, ending employers asking about salary history, and supporting women who want to return to the science, technology, engineering and maths workforce. We have an extensive suite of parental leave and pay rights. Parents have access to a range of leave and pay entitlements in a child’s first year, giving working families more choice and flexibility about who cares for their child and when. Our maternity leave entitlement is also generous. To qualifying employed women we offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid, which is three times more than the EU minimum requirement. For self-employed women and those who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance may be available. Both maternity payments are designed to provide a measure of financial security, to help women to stop working towards the end of their pregnancies and in the months after childbirth in the interests of their own and their babies’ health and wellbeing.
As well as the positive steps we can encourage or require employers to take, we need to clamp down on poor and inappropriate practices, such as waiting for a woman to return from maternity leave and for the current protected period to end, and then—terribly—making her redundant. That is just so wrong. We know that one of the key drivers of the gender pay gap is the time that women stay away from work. Ensuring that women are not needlessly forced out of the workplace is therefore an important way to tackle that inequality and maximise the economic contribution that women can make. As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central explained, the incidence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and the poor treatment of pregnant women and new mothers, is still far too high. That is unacceptable, and why the Bill is so important.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham—I cannot see him in his place but I am sure he will be listening elsewhere—asked whether the Government will produce guidance on pregnancy and maternity discrimination advisory boards. I will take that back to the Department, but there will be work to ensure that information is communicated far and wide so that both employers and employees are aware of those rights.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central and others mentioned the German model. I am conscious that there is always a question whether we can push further and faster and do more. I definitely take his comments on board, but the Government do not think that it is right to follow the German model; I will happily follow up separately with specific details about why we do not agree with going that far. However, there is merit in how the Bill takes definite strides in that direction.
The personal stories told today have been really powerful. Emily and Natasha have been mentioned; my condolences and thoughts are with them after the challenges that they have faced. I hope that the hon. and gallant Member’s work today will ensure that what happened to them is not repeated. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn spoke about the discrimination during pregnancy that her friends faced, which was a really powerful way of bringing to life why the Bill is so important.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West asked about cultural change. As he alluded to in his intervention just now, this is a societal thing. We can change things through legislation, but it is often much better to ensure that we change things in society. The Bill should be the backstop rather than being front and centre for businesses—they should just do the right thing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough did an excellent job, both as my predecessor and in her comments today. I commend her for ensuring that we have moved in the right direction with the Bill. As the hon. Member for Bradford East said, getting collaboration around the table on amendments—never mind getting a private Member’s Bill agreed by the Government—is an immense achievement, and my predecessor has kept the Bill on the table.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster made the point that it is so essential to ensure that women can continue to pursue their career. Nobody should feel that wanting to have a family should end their career. That should never be the situation in the 21st century, or any century. We need to go full force on this.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet spoke about economic activity. She made the point that this is not just about being nice and doing the right thing; it has a substantial impact on the bottom line and on this country’s economy.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield—I should call him my hon. Friend, but I am sure he will be my right hon. Friend at some point; he is always right honourable to me—was so eloquent, as always. He always hits the nail on the head. He made the important point that if we retain women we can also navigate the challenges of skills shortages. That is so important, especially when we consider that there are almost 1 million roles available. Let us make sure that we promote all opportunities to all people.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw spoke so eloquently about the challenges that she faced many decades ago. Hopefully, many of them have since been addressed in legislation, but the Bill will take things even further.
I note the point that the hon. Member for Bradford East raised about tribunal time limits. The Government recognise that there are concerns that in certain circumstances the three-month time limit for bringing Equality Act-based cases to tribunal may not feel long enough. In July 2019 we ran a public consultation on whether the limit should be extended; the positive impact that such a change could have is clear from the responses that we received. The Government response, which was published in July 2021, committed to
“look closely at extending the time limit for bringing Equality Act 2010 based cases to the employment tribunal”.
We continue to consider the evidence for doing so, and we understand the positive impact that it will ultimately have.
In conclusion, these measures will provide invaluable support and protection for parents during what should be an exciting and joyous time—pregnancy and the start of their child’s life—as they juggle work and caring responsibilities. The extension of MAPLE to pregnancy in a period of return to work is backed by evidence and analysis. The Government’s and the EHRC’s research, and the work of the Women and Equalities Committee and others, have established that there is a clear need for further work to help parents at these times. We must take steps to tackle the discrimination and poor treatment that some undoubtedly face.
The Government are pleased to support the Bill. It is wholly in line with our ongoing commitment to support workers and build a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy. We look forward to continuing to work with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and, of course, all the new Committee members who are in the Chamber today to support the Bill.
With the leave of the House, I will briefly respond to what has been an extremely useful and constructive debate, at the end of what, according to any metric, has been quite a long week in this place.
There have been some outstanding contributions from Members today. Everyone who spoke added real value to the debate, and I am incredibly grateful to all of them. I also thank the EHRC, the TUC, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison, the Fawcett Society and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, not just for their invaluable support for the Bill but for the important work that they do. Let me, in particular, thank the Minister, who has been remarkably helpful, as was the previous Minister, as was the shadow Minister, and as have been the officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Clerks, and my very small team in Parliament, Richard Mitchell and Alex Foy, for all the hard work that has gone into the Bill.
As I have said, this has been an extremely useful debate. A huge number of important points have been made—too many to mention. I think it has been acknowledged that the Bill is timely. We all know that our constituents are facing a cost of living crisis, so this is the right moment at which to introduce such legislation. We should of course recognise the pain and suffering of those who have had to endure the hardship of unfair dismissal.
There has been general agreement on the fact that raising a family is a difficult, though important, job, but it is made much more difficult when people have to face discrimination in the workplace. I pay tribute to all who have been fighting that discrimination, including the extraordinary women who are fighting for justice in the courts. I also pay tribute to organisations such as Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action for their dedicated work to protect and enhance the rights of pregnant women.
Whatever happens today, it will still be too late for Emily, Natasha and Sarah, but, as the Minister rightly said a moment ago, their contribution to this process has been incredibly valuable. I hope that they, and all the other people who have been affected, will take some comfort from knowing that they have contributed to—hopefully—a change in the law that will help to give more than 50,000 women a year the security of returning to their job after taking maternity leave. I ask the House to support the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).