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Pregnancy: Discrimination at Work

Volume 759: debated on Monday 2 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to address the findings of the Trades Union Congress report, The Pregnancy Test: Ending Discrimination at Work for New Mothers.

My Lords, the Government welcome the TUC report as a useful contribution to our understanding of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, which is unacceptable and unlawful. The Government have commissioned new research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the attitudes of employers to pregnancy and maternity leave, as well as on the prevalence and causes of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. The results of the interviews with 3,000 employers and 3,000 employees will be published later this year.

I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I am sure that he is aware that Maternity Action believes that as many as 60,000 pregnant women and new mothers were forced out of work in 2014. The excellent TUC report The Pregnancy Test confirms that 40 years after the anti-discrimination legislation was passed, women are still losing jobs and being harassed at work when they are pregnant or have just had a baby. This situation is exacerbated by the dramatic drop in tribunal cases for maternity discrimination by at least 25% due to the huge hike in tribunal fees. So the consultation is very welcome, but what action will the Government take to deal with the double whammy of lack of enforcement of the law and lack of redress for working women of childbearing age?

My Lords, tribunals should be the last resort. The company’s grievance procedures should be able to address that issue, and failing that we have ACAS, which normally looks into these cases. As regards fees for the tribunals, ACAS has been able to look into roughly 80% of the cases, although it now costs money to go to the tribunal. However, where people cannot afford it, there can be remission of the fees, and quite often the tribunal will award costs if a pregnant woman or mother-to-be wins the case.

My Lords, some mothers make a conscious decision to give up their successful careers to bring up their young children during the early stages of child development, which is so important. But often they find it difficult to re-enter the workplace and pick up where they left off. Can my noble friend say what the Government are doing to encourage more employers to make sufficient provision—and there is evidence of some good practice—to help these women to bring back their skills and experiences into the job market?

My Lords, yes, it is important for women who have taken maternity leave to go back to work. Quite often women leave employment with a view to returning to work; that is where the Equality and Human Rights Commission plays a very significant role with BIS in supporting employers to recruit these women back to work.

My Lords, should not the Government take more steps to ensure that the law that exists at the moment is fully carried out? It is not—lots of women are not aware and think that this is discretionary. It is not discretionary at all; it is an entitlement, which is not being kept without a struggle on the part of women concerned. Could not the Government do a great deal more, including what has already been recommended, to ensure that what is already the law is properly carried out by employers?

The noble Baroness raises a very important question. We must get to the root cause of this employment discrimination and find out which groups of pregnant women are most at risk of discrimination and which types of employers—looking at size and sector, for example—are most likely to get complaints from female employees, so that we know where the issues to be addressed exist. That is why the Government have commissioned the largest ever study of pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination in Great Britain.

Is it not the case that if we were to look at responsible business practice, and the return to the employer of acting responsibly, we would find that those women who are protected and whose jobs are secure after they come back into the workplace repay those companies more than twofold by their loyalty and commitment to the organisation? Could not the Government publicise this more?

I agree with the noble Baroness, which is why we are carrying out in-depth research into the aspect of what more we can do. It is important that more women have the choice of family and work at the same time. I hope that the research will come up with a recommendation on what more the Government can do. But this is an area that we do take seriously. We have a larger number of women working at the moment than we had in 2010, and of course we want more of them to come back to work—hence the Government have come up with a number of different schemes, including the nursery allowance and all that, to encourage them to come back to work.

My Lords, the Minister made an observation about women having a choice between staying at home and looking after their children and going out to work. Would he not agree that, increasingly, it is a choice that few people have, because most families can no longer survive on one income? That is why it is extremely important that women are not discriminated against when they have children in getting back into work afterwards.

That is correct—once again I agree with the noble Baroness. That is why the Government have introduced flexible working and are now encouraging, helping and supporting employers, through a number of different schemes, to make sure that they encourage ex-employees to come back to work.