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Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill

Volume 727: debated on Friday 3 February 2023

Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am proud to bring this Bill to the House today. It is good to see the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) here and I thank him for all his engagement with the Bill since he came into post; it has been a very good working relationship and I am grateful to him for all his efforts and support. I also want to take the opportunity to say how grateful I am to his predecessors, the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and for Watford (Dean Russell), all of whom have been incredibly helpful and provided important support in the Bill’s early stages. I also want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who have done an excellent job, as have the Clerks in this House; their work has instrumental in ensuring that we got to this point today.

It is also good to see hon. Members from right across the House here this morning. I thank colleagues from across the House who have previously contributed and helped us to get to this point. I think we are all in agreement that despite everything that has happened in this place in the past 12 months, everyone has put their shoulder to the wheel and worked together to ensure that the Bill has made it to its Third Reading. This Bill has enjoyed strong cross-party support. I am determined to ensure that we maintain that good work today and the Bill is sent on its way safely to the other place, where the noble Baroness Bertin will take up the baton. She has been a strong tribune for women and I know that the Bill will be in very safe hands.

Today, we have a precious opportunity within our grasp to make a real difference to more than 50,000 pregnant women and new parents each year. Many of us here know all too well the trials and tribulations of becoming a new parent. Everything can be a worry: how quickly or slowly the newborn is hitting milestones—breastfeeding, rolling over, sitting and crawling. A never-ending list of questions is racing through one’s mind: “Why are they crying? Why are they not crying? Is that bottle that I have put through the steriliser four times clean?” A lot of these worries are about issues beyond our control, but today we have the chance to alleviate some of that anxiety by ensuring that one thing new parents are less worried about is whether they will have a job to return to after taking parental leave. We are all aware of the challenges facing families today amid a cost of living crisis: rocketing childcare costs; a scarcity of affordable housing; high inflation; and job insecurity.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and I am delighted that his terrific Bill is already on its Third Reading. Does he accept that not only is there an important family side to this Bill, but, with the economy having its troubles, we are also seeking to encourage people to maintain their life in work with this Bill? So not only is it family-friendly, but it is going to give a spur to the economy.

I am grateful for that intervention and I completely agree. My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have tried hard to craft this piece of legislation in a way that, as my hon. Friend says, is very much family friendly, but is also friendly to businesses and employers. We have huge productivity challenges in this country, and certainly the business owners who I talk to in Barnsley, in South Yorkshire and beyond believe in the importance of investing in their workforce. That is good for the employee, but it is also good for the employer.

We have worked hard to achieve the right balance. One of the ways in which we can demonstrate that balance is that we have support from those representing workers—the trade union movement—but also the support of the CBI. I am particularly proud of that. We have been able to find that sweet spot we always wanted: to be family friendly and support women in the workplace, but to do so in a way that is also helpful to businesses.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. This is hugely important work, and I commend the work he has done and praise both the CBI and the Trades Union Congress for their support of this important Bill.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right to praise and highlight the contributions made by a range of different organisations. I am grateful to my own union, Unison, for its extraordinary support, but the CBI and the business community have also been helpful and supportive. As anyone who has embarked on a piece of legislation will know, it is necessary to consult widely, and I have had extremely useful and positive feedback from the business community as well.

From some interesting recent conversations, I know that the decision to start or grow a family has never felt more expensive for so many people, and many are now concluding that, financially, they are not in a position to start a family—at the moment, it is simply unaffordable for them. What new parents need as a minimum is job security, which this Bill seeks to provide by extending redundancy protections for both pregnant women and new parents. That means that a statutory duty will be placed on employers to prioritise soon-to-be parents and new parents in a redundancy situation by offering them—not inviting them to apply for—a suitable alternative vacancy if their job becomes at risk. As Members from both sides of the House agreed on Second Reading, that will make a big difference to tens of thousands of working families every year.

Shamefully, we do have an epidemic of discrimination against women at work. In 2016, a BEIS-commissioned Equality and Human Rights Commission survey found that three in four women experienced pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Some 54,000 women a year lose their job simply because they are pregnant—it is a scandal. We are six years on from those shocking findings, but as yet no action has been taken to tackle the industrial-scale discrimination that women face; for too long, we have collectively failed to address that issue. I am determined to try to break the cycle of intolerance, inequity and inaction, because pregnant women do not just deserve to feel safe in their roles, but have a right to be safe.

With a cost of living crisis meaning that millions are falling into poverty, we cannot wait any longer to act. Discrimination was rife pre-pandemic, but mothers are one and a half times more likely than fathers to have lost their job since lockdowns began. Charities such as Pregnant Then Screwed do incredible work to support women facing maternity discrimination, and the personal stories of the pain and hardship women face, particularly during lockdown, are deeply troubling to hear.

On Second Reading, I told one story that was so deeply unjust, it still sticks in my mind: the story of Natasha. Natasha lost her job at the height of the pandemic. She was pregnant; she was the only employee to be dismissed from her team. Amid the chaos and disruption of 2020, with a baby on the way, Natasha was unemployed without the means to pay her bills. Then, as if things could not get any worse, a few weeks later, disaster struck: a miscarriage. In the middle of one of the worst public health outbreaks we have seen, Natasha had lost her baby and lost her job.

It is hard to comprehend the heartbreak and injustice that Natasha had to endure. The sad fact is that this legislation comes too late for women such as Natasha, but if we can get this right today, it will mark a positive step towards affording pregnant women more protection in their workplace and giving working parents the increased security of returning to their job after taking parental leave. Although the Bill will go some way to strengthening employment rights, on its own it is not a silver bullet. The issues with parental leave are vast. We cannot fix everything through a single piece of legislation. There is much more to be done, not least to bolster this new legislation and to support women taking their employer to court when a business flouts the rules.

Currently, the onus is on the woman, who, remember, is on maternity leave, to take the matter to an employment tribunal—a highly stressful and costly decision that must be made within three months. However, the 2016 findings showed that fewer than 1% of women—yes, 1%—lodged a complaint with an employment tribunal. Extending the time limit to bring forward a claim to six months was supported by every single stakeholder I engaged with bar none. These women deserve proper access to justice. One of the ways in which we can provide that is by extending the time limit. Bad employers must know that there will be consequences for their discriminatory treatment.

I am looking to the Minister now to give the evidence good consideration. When do his Government plan to implement the Law Commission’s April 2020 findings and extend the time limit for all employment tribunal claims to six months? That would complement the Bill that we are introducing today.

I also wish to raise once more the issue that relates to the six-week qualifying period—this will come as no surprise to the Minister. Although these measures will not be in the Bill, they are none the less still important. Currently, there is a proposal to include within the regulations a qualifying period whereby a new parent must take six consecutive weeks of family leave to be entitled to the redundancy protections. I must again put on the record my concerns, which are echoed by stakeholders, that such a threshold could disproportionately impact a new mother who may be forced to curtail her maternity leave, for whatever reason, returning to work unprotected and vulnerable.

I know that the Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Advisory Board met last week to discuss the proposal. I understand that it was a constructive meeting and I am very pleased that there is an ongoing consultation on this before a final decision is taken. The Minister will be pleased to know that I do not need him to respond on that particular point today, but I would, in good faith, ask him again to give good consideration to the board’s recommendations, so that we are able to protect as many new mothers as possible with this legislation.

Madam Deputy Speaker, time is short. Colleagues will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to detain the House for much longer, as I am keen to make progress with this Bill. However, I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported it. On Second Reading, we heard moving and powerful testimonies not just from colleagues speaking on behalf of their own constituents, but from hon. Members who shared their own lived experiences, including the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), and for that I am grateful. I also wish to put on record my gratitude to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Unison, the TUC, Unite the Union, the Royal College of Midwives, the Fawcett Society, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the CBI, Working Families and Mumsnet. I thank them all for their invaluable support to the process over the past year.

I also, again, want to thank the Minister and his team for their excellent work and the brilliant support. Similarly, the Clerks in the House have worked at their usual extremely high standard. I also thank the shadow Minister who has engaged patiently and closely and in the best traditions of the constructive support that we get from our own Front Bench, and I am very grateful to him. I thank also my own very small team, Alex Foy and Richard Mitchell, for their excellent work in getting us to this point.

We are here today to make a change for 54,000 women and new parents besides across Scotland, England and Wales. We are here to help protect people such as Natasha and the families who will benefit from the changes the Bill will bring. We have a rare and precious opportunity to make that happen. I very much hope that we do not miss that chance today and that the Bill goes forward.

I rise to support the Bill. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for all his work on this very important matter. As he mentioned, the fact we are here today, in 2023, no less, to debate giving women protections in the workplace is a clear indication that, despite all the progress we have made as a society, there is much more that still needs to be done to ensure fairness for all.

I am aware that legislation alone cannot be the only vehicle for progress. In general terms, we should be very careful when we call for increases in regulation, because those can have unexpected and unintended adverse consequences. That said, I believe the Bill is extremely necessary.

In 2019, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched a consultation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and the possibility of extending redundancy protection for women and new parents. In response to that consultation, the Government pledged to extend current redundancy protections from the moment the employer was informed of the pregnancy through to six months after maternity leave has finished, as well as extending equivalent protections to those taking adoption leave or shared parental leave.

Those measures were included in an outline of a proposed employment Bill in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. However, in common with so much else, that Bill was entirely knocked sideways by the arrival of the pandemic a short while afterwards and the Bill did not get to the Floor of the House.

Between 2019 and 2021, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) introduced three private Members’ Bills aiming to prohibit redundancy during pregnancy, maternity leave and up to six months after, other than for a limited set of reasons. Unfortunately, none of those Bills received a Second Reading. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is to be congratulated on both bringing the Bill and for working with the Government to secure support for it.

This place can be very fractious at times. Regretfully, most of the general public form their view by watching Prime Minister’s Question Time. I wish more people would watch the proceedings of the House on a Friday, because they would see the House working at its best. Very often we come here on a cross-party basis and do things for the common good of our citizens.

I would like to bring attention to the context in which the Bill would have an effect. The current provisions in the Employment Rights Act 1996 allow the Secretary of State to make regulations with regard to redundancy “during” periods of maternity leave, adoption leave or shared parental leave. The Bill amends those respective provisions to allow regulations with regard to redundancy “during or after” such periods of leave.

The Bill aims to provide a safety net for pregnant women so that they are not unfairly dismissed from their jobs during or shortly after pregnancy. That is crucial, given that a woman, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central has said, can be in a vulnerable position, especially after having her first child. Difficulties can also be experienced by women who adopt children, and it is right that the Bill also includes provisions for those circumstances.

The Bill will give increased job security at an important time in the lives of families. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Equality and Human Rights Commission claimed its research shows that up to 54,000 new mothers a year may be dismissed from their jobs. That is an outrageous figure. For that to be even remotely true in 2023 is, frankly, scandalous. It is particularly concerning given that we, as a country, are proud of being a model for modern work practices.

In July 2020, the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed surveyed 19,950 women and found that

“11.2% of women on maternity leave have been made redundant or expect to be made redundant ”,

of whom

“60.7% believe their maternity leave was a factor in the decision’’.

The fact that so many women consider that being on maternity leave was a factor in their employer’s decision to make them redundant is cause for concern.

I believe the Bill is well balanced, because the measures will be beneficial to businesses as well as to employees. The Bill is likely to improve relations with female employees and reduce a source of conflict that can, in some instances, develop into costly and time-consuming legal cases. I am pleased that, alongside the reforms, the Government have committed to working with the Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Advisory Board to update guidance so that this type of discrimination in the workplace is further eradicated.

I speak as the father of an inspiring young woman. I know that parents across our great country raise their daughters in the hope and expectation that they will get into the workplace, have good careers and contribute to society, if they can develop the skills demanded by our businesses and economy. At the risk of repeating myself, I reiterate that our country is one of best places for women to join the workforce and work; however, where further progress can be made, we should not hesitate to act to get there. It is only right that we remove any barriers that hinder women from achieving their ambitions. The Bill seeks to do that, so I very much support it.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) and to congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on bringing this incredibly important Bill all the way to Third Reading. I regularly receive emails from constituents who care as deeply as all of us in this place do about making sure that pregnant women and new parents are protected in the workplace. I pay tribute to campaign groups such as Pregnant Then Screwed and groups such as Mumsnet that help to shine a light on all the injustices that are faced.

It has taken a long time, but we have made progress in making sure that the rights of pregnant women and those who want to start families are protected. I remember in the early 2000s, having just been married and allowed for the first time to take up a permanent role in this country, I was asked at interviews what my hobbies were. I said that I enjoyed knitting and was asked, “Is that for babies?” Of course, that sort of thing is not allowed these days. I was able to say that no, I had not knitted any baby things at that point, although it was not long after that that I was knitting them.

As someone who has had six pregnancies, three of which resulted in live, successful births, I am delighted that this legislation is finally coming forward. It has been a long time coming. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central cited the 2016 research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that found that approximately one in nine mothers—11% of them—reported that they were dismissed, made compulsorily redundant when others in the workplace were not, or treated so poorly that they had to leave their job. That is a huge indictment of the workplace in 2016, which is not that long ago. It is clear that work still needs to be done.

It was good that the Women and Equalities Committee followed up with an inquiry and report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination in August 2016. These things always seem to take time. The Government responded in 2017 and acknowledged the scale of the pregnancy and maternity discrimination that was experienced. It is important that the Government recognised that they needed to bring forward proposals to ensure that protections were in place. In January 2019, the Government published a consultation to seek views on extending the protections. It was good that, in the 2019 manifesto on which I stood for election, the Conservatives committed to addressing pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech highlighting the injustices that pregnant women and new mums face in the workplace. The Bill will go an awful long way towards addressing some of the challenges and injustices. Does she agree that the Government generally have a very good record on employment legislation since 2010? In 2019, Government Members stood on a manifesto commitment to further improve protections against pregnancy and maternity discrimination and to continue to ensure it is outlawed. Does she agree that the Bill is an important step towards achieving that?

I agree with my hon. Friend. That has been the case since 2010. Those of us who stood in 2019 participated in Zoom debates in early 2020, in the middle of covid, to discuss workers’ rights and maternity provisions, and talked about what the Government had been doing to protect women.

I draw attention to clause 1(4), which allows for the regulations to provide for the protected period of pregnancy to commence after the pregnancy has ended. It allows, for example, a woman who has miscarried before, in informing her employer of the pregnancy, to access the redundancy protection that she would have been entitled to had she first informed her employer.

It is incredibly important that we in this place recognise the effects of miscarriage. At the start of my speech, I talked about the fact that I had had three live births, but I also lost three babies. I do not think that people realise the impact that that has on a woman, in terms not just of her physical health—a drop-off in oestrogen after a pregnancy can have an impact on full-term pregnancy and on those who have miscarried—but of her mental health. There may also be issues in the second trimester—I faced the issue in one of my pregnancies—with the milk coming in. You might not be prepared for those sorts of things. There is also the delivery. Many people think that when you lose a baby, it is a clean operation—somebody goes in and sorts things out—but quite often, one delivers the lost baby. The recovery time for that is quite extended and important, especially if you have other small children to care for at the time.

All the protections in the Bill are incredibly important. I know from my own personal experience how important it is to recognise what women go through when they are trying to start a family or have more children in their family. I will be watching carefully how the Bill is implemented. Employers must take the protections incredibly seriously. I hope that when surveys are done—as they were in 2016—we see not just that the numbers have come down under the legislation, but that zero women face this sort of discrimination in the workplace.

I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and congratulate him on his important Bill. I know that the Government have been waiting to do something on this matter for a while, so I rise to support the Bill and hope for a unanimous decision if and when we vote on it.

Becoming a new parent can be an incredibly exciting but incredibly anxious time. The stresses about jobs being on the line can and do create additional pressure. A lot of progress has been made in this area, but as hon. Members have said, more needs to be done. I have spoken in the House about my own beautiful nieces and nephew. I want them all to have the same opportunities and support in the workplace, irrespective of whether they are male or female. My great and hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) alluded to the fact that things are good, but there is much progress to be made. I have met his daughter, who will be a leading light in whatever industry she chooses to pursue.

As someone who was educated in the United Kingdom, one of my personal frustrations is that my female friends, who are head and shoulders above me in particular, face barriers to getting back into work when they choose to have a family. We continue to have low unemployment, and the Government continue rightly to focus on productivity. More than 50% of the workforce potentially have to step back. As and when they decide to come back into employment, it is typically to jobs that need to be flexible and so they are less successful in the eyes of the company.

I represent a lot of young families. In my South West Hertfordshire constituency, 32% of households have dependent children—that is higher than the England and Wales average of 28%—and the proportion of zero to 19-year-olds is higher than the national average. We would expect that in a home counties seat, where families typically start out.  People get married, predominantly in London, but then when they are looking to have a family, they look out towards places such as Rickmansworth in my constituency, which is on the tube line, or where I live up in Tring, which normally has a good train service into London. Constituents should not in my eyes need to consider their job security when going through the emotional rollercoaster of hopefully starting a family or building on their family, but the sad reality is that in all likelihood that is absolutely a consideration they need to have, and that is why this Bill is so important.

As has been alluded to, back in 2015, the EHRC conducted a survey of 3,200 women, of whom a significant minority spoke about the difficulties they had, whether from being forced out of work by redundancy or effectively being forced out by the conditions they were having to work in post pregnancy. More than one in 20 of those mothers were put under pressure to hand in their notice. As someone who used to run a small business, that is shocking, because what any employer should be doing is nurturing their workforce. While there is loyalty with a pay packet, there should be loyalty based on the terms and conditions and atmosphere within work.

Each and every one of us in this place is effectively a small employer with the staff we recruit. I thank Sarah Varley from my office for helping me put together this speech. A lot of what we do is reliant on their expertise and support. It is not money that is the driver, but making sure they can have a lasting legacy through us as their representatives. As and when any of my staff look to hopefully get married and have children, I hope that this type of Bill will already be in place, such that they are not thinking twice about the conditions they are likely to come back to, whether they choose to come back into the political bubble in this place or to go on to bigger and better things.

Climbing the career ladder for women remains an obstacle. I have referred to my wife before, and she is more successful than I am and has been since the day I met her. She is a great woman, besides her judgment in men, but I will leave it at that. More seriously, when I look at people like her and her peer group, having the opportunity to drop in or drop out of a career path in my eyes should be quite normal. My friend the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central was in the military for many years, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) similarly had a solid career and then chose to do something separate by becoming an elected representative. The children of today are likely to have seven or eight distinct careers, and we should actively encourage the horizontal movement of successful people, because that is how we remain a cutting-edge country.

I have spoken a lot in this place about supporting wealth creators. Wealth creation does not necessarily mean supporting the unicorns; in my eyes it means supporting the SMEs to remain active and profitable. Some 80% of our economy is reliant on the SMEs doing well. I know that the Minister is a great fan of that narrative, and I look forward to continuing to support his excellent work in that area.

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent speech, and I agree with every single word. I think he touched upon this early when he spoke about economic benefit. Employers out there are thinking, “Oh my word, we need these people back in the workplace.” There are very good reasons for people being in the workplace, but does he agree that this measure will bring nothing but economic benefit to the UK by increasing the workforce and getting more out of the workforce, because we are treating them better?

My hon. and gallant Friend makes an excellent point. As a Conservative, my personal philosophy remains that the state should get out of the way and only needs to step in as and when appropriate. In this instance, it is appropriate. On Second Reading, there was talk about the German strategy. The hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central referenced that back in October 2022. My personal view remains that an outright ban on redundancies is not appropriate at this stage. We should always look to encourage better behaviour and good practice and, where appropriate, nudge that behaviour change, and this particular Bill does that.

I have referred to my personal experience as an SME, and the additional barriers that the Bill as is creates are appropriate. However, if they became too onerous, the unintended consequences could be significant and make profitable companies unprofitable, with the workforce not in place. I remain supportive of this legislation because it is the right thing to do and it is structured in a way that, in my eyes, will have the most impact. 

In terms of support for the reform, this Government and previous ones have continuously evolved this policy area in the right way. In January 2019, BEIS launched a consultation into pregnancy and maternity discrimination. More than three quarters of respondents agreed that the redundancy protection currently provided during maternity leave should be extended when someone returns to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) referred to the difficulty that a new mother experiences when they go back to work, and that they need additional support. Having a cut-off after pregnancy seems a bit harsh. The provision to extend it into the period of return to work is appropriate, because everyone needs a transition. A mother’s body, family and lifestyle are fundamentally affected when they have the joy of welcoming a child into the world.

It is worth noting from that BEIS consultation in 2019 that the responses were positive from not only employees but employers, because they understood the benefits of doing this. That demonstrates the breadth of support for reform. More importantly, there is cross-party support in this place. I do not think that anyone at any stage in the Bill’s progress has been against it. I am sure that the Bill will pass Third Reading today.

The Women and Equalities Committee conducted an inquiry into this matter, which found that pregnant women and mothers report discrimination and poor treatment in work more now than a decade ago. Although that may indicate a rise in women reporting such issues, it undoubtedly shows that the problem persists. This issue is still here and will not go away without our intervention.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome this important Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on introducing it to the House and on his efforts to successfully secure cross-party and Government support so that it can make it to the point that it has today. Hopefully, later today it will pass through to the other place.

This Bill will address a gap in current protections by giving the Secretary of State power, by regulation, to extend protection against redundancy to cover a longer period during or after a period of pregnancy. The Secretary of State would have the power to make regulations to extend equivalent protections for those on adoption leave or shared parental leave after that period of leave has concluded.

This Bill has been a long time in the making, and comes too late for the hon. Member’s constituent Natasha, as he said. It was back in 2015 that the EHRC, working with the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, commissioned research into this issue, precisely to establish the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. Other hon. Members have referred to the data, but it bears repetition. There was a shocking estimate that around 54,000 mothers may be forced out of their jobs each year. Some 77% of mothers said that they had had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or on their return from maternity leave.

The second piece of research I want to mention was that carried out by Pregnant Then Screwed. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) referred to the findings that more than 11% of women on maternity leave had been made redundant or expected to be made redundant, of whom 60% believed that their maternity leave was a factor in the decision. Those are the statistics, but behind them is the terrible impact on individuals and their families.

We in this House are here to protect people from such discrimination. That is what this legislation will do. As well as the surveys and work outside Parliament, it is right to recognise the action that the Government and other Members have taken to address the issue, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who proposed a number of Bills on this issue. In 2019, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched a consultation to extend the current protection to cover pregnancy and the period after—an extension of six months. In response, the Government pledged to extend the redundancy protections and to extend equivalent protections for those taking adoption leave or shared parental leave. That measure was included in an outline of an employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech in 2019, shortly after the election. Understandably, the Government had to focus on leading the country through the pandemic, but happily, that employment Bill, rather like the break-up of AT&T and the creation of the Baby Bells, has now allowed a number of smaller Bills to flourish. Hopefully other Bills that we are discussing today will take forward what was in the employment Bill.

I warmly welcome the Government’s support for this Bill, which demonstrates a commitment to protecting people’s employment rights while maintaining important labour market flexibility, which has seen unemployment at its lowest in 50 years. It is important that employers and employees are aware of these new protections. I would be interested to hear more from the Minister about the Government’s plans to work with business organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI and the Institute of Directors, as well as the TUC and other organisations, to promote the changes, so that companies know what they have to do, and individuals know what their rights are.

This is a framework Bill, and it is important to get the detail of the regulations right, which is why the affirmative procedure is appropriate in this case. Could the Minister update the House on when he expects to bring forward those regulations and how much consultation there has been with the groups I have mentioned and others, to make sure we get this right?

We always have to be mindful of the need to minimise as far as possible the cost to business of the legislation we pass. Paragraph 24 of the explanatory notes states:

“The one-off cost to business of familiarising themselves with the new legislation, for example to amend their HR policies, is estimated at £30.4m.”

I expect—and knowing the Minister, I am pretty sure this will happen—the Government to issue simple, clear guidance for companies to follow, to make this legislation as simple as possible to implement. There is a broader point about the need to revitalise our deregulatory agenda in other policy areas, to reduce the cost to business and back enterprise, as the Chancellor set out in his recent speech. There are lots of opportunities to do that, without the limitations of our being a member of EU.

In conclusion, there is a great consensus across the Chamber today, and I look forward to the Bill completing its remaining stages and delivering the greater protection for new mums during and after maternity leave that they deserve.

I know that this Bill has the strong support of Members right across the House. We have heard excellent speeches today from the hon. Members for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) and for North West Norfolk (James Wild). I know that we are all keen to wrap up proceedings in this House and send this important Bill to the other place, so I will not go into detail on the contributions that have been made, but the central theme that has run through the debate is that this is a very important Bill that rightly enjoys the support of Members across the House. This House is at its best when we come together on such important matters.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) said, and as I set out on Second Reading, this Bill is long overdue. Eight years ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 new mothers were forced out of their jobs because of either compulsory redundancy or workplace conditions that were so unwelcoming or so unsupportive that they had no choice but to leave. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee found, following the EHRC’s report, that the discrimination and poor treatment that pregnant women and new mothers face was worse than it was a decade ago. That is disgraceful, and it falls far below the standards we should expect in this country. The hon. Member for Orpington was right to say that in 2023 that should shame everybody. We should be going forwards, not backwards, strengthening the rights and protections afforded to working people, not letting them erode. I am pleased that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central goes some way towards addressing the issue. The Government have done the right thing by joining the Opposition in supporting the Bill on its legislative journey.

Let me make two brief points, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Although I think we can all agree that the Bill should enjoy the support of the House, it is very much an enabling Bill and further regulations from the Minister are required. I am hopeful that the Minister will set out some timescales and further particulars for those regulations. The other matter, although it does not fall within the scope of the Bill, is the six-week rule that my hon. Friend quite rightly mentioned, which is very important. The tragedy is that that rule will exclude groups of people that it should not exclude. I do not believe for one minute that that is the aim of the Bill, and I think the whole House would agree that the matter needs clarification from the Minister and urgent attention.

Although I welcome my hon. Friend’s Bill and although it has the full support of those on the Labour Front Bench and the rest of the Labour party, it should not have fallen to Back Benchers to introduce such legislation. The legislation should have been introduced by the Government, not through a private Member’s Bill, as part of a comprehensive expansion of employment rights and protection. We would have liked to have seen the measures in the Bill introduced as part of the Government’s much-promised but still to be delivered employment Bill. A general election is not expected for a little while yet—the Minister is preoccupied, but I am sure he agrees with that statement; I suspect that Government Members hope that that is the case—so there is still time for the Government to introduce such a Bill.

If the Conservatives will not introduce that legislation, the next Labour Government will do so: a comprehensive new deal for working people delivered within our first 100 days in office. It will not only extend statutory maternity and paternity leave to give new parents stronger protections, but tackle workplace sexual harassment, create a single enforcement body to uphold the existing rights of working people and working parents, introduce ethnicity pay gap monitoring so that we can tackle the issue of those from an ethnic minority background being paid less, and repeal the draconian Trade Union Act 2016, to empower working people to fight for a better deal, as well as the scandalous Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which will see Ministers sack key workers for standing up to protect their jobs, pay and rights at work. As the party that has pioneered protections for women in legislation by introducing the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equality Act 2010, the minimum wage and Sure Start, protecting working parents will always be a priority for Labour. We support this important Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central on the work that he has done in bringing it to the House and guiding it every step of the way.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, let me thank my friend the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for bringing this important Bill forward for debate. It is one of three very important measures we are taking through the House today. We have this Bill on protection from redundancy, the Bill on carer’s leave introduced by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and the Bill on the right to request regular hours, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). Those measures are on top of other workplace changes that we have made or are making, such as those on neonatal care leave, the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill, which we debated only a couple of weeks ago, and measures on the right to request flexible working.

That is not really consistent with the implication of the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) that the Government are going backwards on workers’ rights; far from it, we are absolutely taking this forward. He talked about the vehicle for doing so, and personally I think it is an absolute honour to be able to take through a piece of legislation such as this; it is a great honour for the hon. Member for Barnsley Central. I have had the chance to take through legislation on a couple of occasions during my career as a Back Bencher, and it is great to be able to do that, so I do not agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford East. There are different ways of taking legislation forward in this place, and a private Member’s Bill is a perfectly appropriate one. The Government support this measure.

As we improve workers’ rights, it is however important to say—a number of my colleagues have referred to this, as did the hon. Member for Barnsley Central—that we must also consider the impacts on business. Clearly there are extra costs in measures such as these; the costs here are about £30 million initially for business through familiarisation costs and ongoing costs of about £1 million a year. We must consider the burdens on businesses as we take these measures forward.

There is a recognition now that, although covid’s effects on our freedoms were temporary, the effects on the workplace are much more long term, and workers clearly now want a fairer and more flexible workplace. Business needs to provide that fair and flexible workplace if we are to solve some of the labour challenges across our nation. Those challenges are not just affecting this nation; many are attributing our labour shortages to Brexit, but I do not accept that characterisation. These problems are arising across the world; for instance, the USA currently has 10.7 million vacancies with only about 6 million people looking for work, a higher ratio of vacancies to people looking for work than ours. There are challenges right across the globe.

The Minister is making a persuasive argument and I agree with everything he is saying. We heard earlier about the economic benefits of the Bill, and it is imperative to get more people back into the workplace. In Bracknell Forest in 2009, the birth rate was 1.86. It came down in 2019 to 1.65, and has come down again in 2022 to 1.58. Fewer women across the country are having children, which will have a detrimental effect on our economy in the future. Does the Minister agree that this Bill might encourage women to start families and have children, because they know employers will respect their rights and that they will not be discriminated against?

May I also raise the importance of early years funding, even though that is not a responsibility of the Minister’s Department? It is essential that we do more to allow women to go back to work with their young children in early years care, for which we need more funding.

I heard my hon. Friend’s comments earlier about recognising the pressures on businesses and making sure that we consider their interests when making legislation, and I entirely agree with what he says. Some 575,000 people of working age have left the workplace since the pandemic started. We want to attract more of those people back to work, because they have an important role to play. There are talented people outside the workforce, and businesses need more people in the workplace; measures such as those in the Bill are required.

I liked the description of this legislation by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central as a sweet spot. It is absolutely right that we consider the interests of business alongside those of workers. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) talked about his small business background in his speech, rightly again looking at the interests of business as well as those of workers.

I thank all Members who have spoken on this important matter today and in previous stages; I am grateful for their participation. I also repeat the thanks from the hon. Member for Barnsley Central to my ministerial predecessors, my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Dean Russell), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and to others for their work in getting us to this stage, and I am pleased to confirm that the Government continue to support the Bill.

It has been heartening to observe support for the Bill from across the House, and I was pleased to hear that reflected in the debate. No one should have to face pregnancy and maternity discrimination. It has a pernicious effect on the immediate and longer-term employment prospects for women, and for businesses it can act as a drag on equality, productivity and, indeed, their reputation generally. That is why I am pleased that we are here today. The Government—indeed, the Business Secretary and I—are committed to ensuring that the UK is the best place in the world to start and scale a business. We need a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth.

I would like to put on the record why the Government are supporting the Bill. 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—looking to drive positive action to achieve good or better outcomes. To help those policies have maximum impact, we also need to clamp down on poor or inappropriate practices such as discriminating against pregnant women or new mothers, or waiting for a woman to return from maternity leave when the current protected period ends and then making her redundant.

We know that one of the key drivers of the gender pay gap is the time when women stay away from work. Ensuring that women are not needlessly forced out of the workplace is therefore an important way of tackling that inequality and maximising the economic contribution that women can make. As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central explained to the House, the incidence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination and the poor treatment of pregnant women and new mothers is far too high. This is an unacceptable situation.

The law is absolutely clear that discriminating against women on the grounds of their pregnancy or because they are on maternity leave is unlawful. Legislation is in place in the Equality Act 2010, which every employer must follow. There are also regulations under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999—the so-called MAPLE regulations—which currently put a woman on maternity leave, or a parent on adoption or shared parental leave, in a preferential position in a redundancy situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) made the key point that that also applies to adoptive parents. It was announced in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech that the Government would extend those redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Earlier in 2019, the Government had consulted on extending the existing redundancy protections into pregnancy and for a period of return to work following relevant leave. The relevant types of leave are maternity, adoption and shared parental leave. Consultation respondents strongly agreed that six months would be an adequate period of time for redundancy protections to be in place after an individual on maternity leave has returned to work. Consultation respondents also strongly agreed that protection should be extended to parents who had taken adoption or shared parental leave. The Government’s consultation response committed to extend redundancy protection during pregnancy and for six months after a new mother has returned to work, and to afford the same protections to those returning from adoption leave and shared parental leave.

Under MAPLE, before making an employee on maternity leave redundant, employers have an obligation to offer them, and not just to invite them to apply for, a suitable alternative vacancy where one is available. The Bill is important as it will allow us through regulations to extend MAPLE protection into pregnancy and for a period following the birth of the child covering the return to work period. The existing protection that applies when a parent is taking relevant leave will remain unchanged.

Let me now address some of the points made by Members today. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central made an important point about extending the window of access to employment tribunals. As I think he knows, tribunals do have discretion; they can, in specific circumstances, look at individual cases brought outside that three-month window which might normally be deemed to be out of time. The number of circumstances that might not fit within the window has increased owing to covid and other pressures, such as waiting lists. We are considering these matters, and will, I am sure, engage in further conversations with the hon. Gentleman.

We have talked before about the requirement for six consecutive weeks of leave that needs to be taken to qualify for extended leave, which was mentioned today by both the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and the hon. Member for Bradford East. We are looking carefully at that requirement, but the purpose of the qualification period is to ensure that these measures are targeted at those who need them most—those who have taken an extended period of leave, not just, for example, two weeks’ paternity leave. Consultations are ongoing, and we are giving the issue earnest consideration. However, I can assure the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and other Members that our interests are aligned with those of workers, and that the people who really need this extra support are at the front of the queue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington rightly raised the issue of balance between workers and businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) spoke movingly of her own experiences. It was wonderful to hear that she has three children, but she also had three mishaps along the way. I am lucky enough to have four healthy children, but along the way my wife and I had a number of miscarriages, so we have had similar experiences and I do know how distressing it is when this happens. My hon. Friend talked about her experiences of miscarriage, and I think it is fair to say that it is far from straightforward. Pregnancy can be a wonderful time, but it can also be very challenging—a period of highs and lows even at the best of times. There can be pretty severe mental and physical impacts, which we should always bear in mind, and that is why this kind of flexibility in the workplace is so important. The last thing that any employer should do is add an injustice to insult and injury.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South talked about the Government’s excellent record on workers’ rights. The death of workers’ rights has often been greatly exaggerated during debates in the House, but we are strengthening rather than diminishing them. In this regard we have always been way ahead of the pack, including European Union member states. I look forward to the debate that we shall have later today on the Second Reading of my hon. Friend’s excellent Workers (Predictable Terms and Conditions) Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire talked about his nieces and nephews, and his wish to ensure that they would be given equal treatment when they entered the workplace. Good employers always do that, of course, but in this instance we have in mind employers who do not do the right thing, and this legislation is intended to ensure that they do in future. As Members know, I spent 30 years in business. What we are proudest of in business is our legacy and our reputation, and it seems to me that our reputation is founded on how we treat not only our customers but the people who work for us. That approach has tremendous recruitment and retention benefits for business.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) rightly said that we were here to protect people from various types of mistreatment. That is indeed one of our jobs here in the House. He asked how we could promote these measures so that employers knew about them. We are consulting and working with key stakeholders such as the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the TUC to try to ensure that these changes are as widely known about as possible in the business community. He also asked about regulations, as did the hon. Member for Bradford East. We are making good progress on regulations and officials are working at pace, although I cannot give an actual date for when those regulations will be in place. My hon. Friend will probably understand that we have some key considerations here and we want to ensure that we get things right as we bring them forward.

As I conclude, may I thank the civil servants who have worked fantastically hard on this Bill? They are coping with a huge amount of legislation at the moment, some of which has been brought in very rapidly, for obvious reasons. Let me name them individually: Tony Mulcahy; Jenni Aara; Aoife Egar; Faye Penlington; Bryan Halka; Roxana Bakharia; Jayne McCann; Keisha Parris; and Cora Sweet, from my private office, who is sitting in the Box there.

To conclude, as my predecessors have said to this House before, these measures will provide invaluable support and protection for pregnant women and new parents. A little bit more security during these times in people’s lives is so important. The evidence and analysis of the need to introduce additional protection is absolutely clear. Through the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s own research, and the work of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities and others, we see that there is clearly a need for further support for parents at these times. The Government are pleased to support this private Member’s Bill, which is wholly in line with our ongoing commitment to support workers and build a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy. The Government look forward to continuing work with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and those in the other place to support the passage of these measures.

With the leave of the House, I will take the opportunity briefly to thank Members for their excellent contributions this morning. We have heard some really meaningful, moving and impactful contributions, and I am very grateful for all of them, from different parts of the country. If the House will indulge me for one moment, I will reflect with satisfaction on the contribution that has been made this morning by Members from Yorkshire. A private Member’s Bill that has been brought forward by a south Yorkshire MP has been supported by a Minister representing a great seat in north Yorkshire and a shadow Minister from west Yorkshire—and not for one moment would I have forgotten that in the Chair we also have an outstanding Yorkshire MP. I am very proud of the contribution we have collectively made. It is amazing what we can achieve in Yorkshire when we work together.

As has been said, this has been an extraordinary team effort. In addition to some brilliant contributions by Members from across the House, a range of organisations have done a huge amount of work in, and made a huge contribution to, getting us to this point. So I wish briefly to acknowledge the support and the hard work that has been done by Unison, the EHRC, the TUC, Unite the union, the Royal College of Midwives, the Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the CBI, Maternity Action, Working Families and Mumsnet. I also want to echo the comments made by the Minister about the excellent work done by his civil servants, who have provided an outstanding contribution, as have the Clerks in this House. I am very grateful for the contribution that Members have provided.

At the heart of this Bill are those 54,000 women laid off each year simply because they are pregnant. Today, working together, we have made huge progress towards protecting women and new parents who are returning to work from redundancy. I am grateful for everybody’s contributions and I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.