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House of Commons Hansard
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Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection)
21 May 2019
Volume 660

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit making employees redundant during pregnancy, maternity leave and the period of six months from the end of pregnancy; and for connected purposes.

It is a scandal that in 2019 so many women should be fearful of losing their jobs simply because they are pregnant, so I am introducing this Bill to protect pregnant women and new mothers from redundancy. My Bill sets out to strengthen the existing protection that new mothers have under the law by adopting much of the model already in use in Germany. It would stop an employer from being able to make a woman redundant from the point that she notifies them that she is pregnant until six months after the end of her maternity leave; in Germany, that period is currently three months. There would be an exception where the employer ceases to carry on business where the pregnant woman or new mother is employed. The protection is specifically in relation to redundancy. It would not, for instance, apply if a dismissal was put in place for gross misconduct. That would be outside of the scope of the Bill.

There are half a million pregnant women in the workplace every year, and the Government should be applauded for achieving record numbers of women in work. However, many women go on to take a period of maternity leave before returning to work and, shockingly, research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission finds that one in 20 of these women is made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave. Overall, more than 50,000 pregnant women every year feel that they have no alternative but to leave their job when they are pregnant. The cost of this situation is high for women on so many levels. The EHRC says that pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination results in job losses and a cost to women of between £47 million and £113 million a year. The costs to the taxpayer are also significant, as the Government forgo taxes and pay increased benefits to the tune of between £14 million and £17 million.

This scandal also holds back our economy. The broader economic advantages of encouraging women’s participation in the labour market are well documented. According to a report by McKinsey, encouraging women’s participation in work and ensuring that they are protected from discrimination could add as much as £150 billion to the UK economy. If the Government are to achieve their objective of eliminating the gender pay gap, they need to tackle maternity discrimination at its roots.

So why do we need to protect new and expectant mothers in particular from redundancy? We already legally protect maternity leave for multiple and important reasons. Maternity leave is a time for bonding with a new baby, for recovering from the physical and mental strain of pregnancy and birth, and for learning to handle the significant challenges of parenthood. It is no time to be going for a job interview for a new post, nor to be distracted or driven to distraction by the stress of a redundancy process—a process in which, because she is on leave for a prolonged period, a new mother will simply be unable to participate on equal terms with her other colleagues. In short, it is no time to be made redundant. That is the reasoning behind the existing protections. The problem is that those protections simply do not work in practice.

Keen-eyed colleagues will have noted that this Bill comes on the heels of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consultation, which is looking at extending the existing protections to six months after maternity leave has ended. The current protections state that if a woman is made redundant during her maternity leave, she must be offered any suitable alternative vacancies. Extending this provision for six months would not be a negative step—I am sure it would be welcomed in some quarters—but it would not solve the problem. The law as it currently stands is too often ignored or circumvented by employers, either because it is poorly understood or due to ingrained stereotypes about new mothers’ place in the workplace, so the existing protection does not work.

This Bill proposes a much simpler and clearer protection, drawing on the proposals of the Women and Equalities Committee in 2016. The Committee recommended that the Government consider the German model. I reiterate that recommendation today because in Germany, where 72% of women are in work—a higher proportion than in the UK—a new or expectant mother cannot be made redundant unless the employer has secured the consent of a specific public authority, which is only given in exceptional circumstances. The Government’s consultation offered a response to that recommendation, objecting on the basis that it would not be appropriate to apply an approach to enforcement that is fundamentally different from that of the rest of employment law.

The Government are already planning to bring forward proposals for a new single enforcement body, so perhaps the novel approach that the Committee put forward may not now be out of the question. But assuming it is, the Bill I propose today answers those criticisms directly. It would not need a new watchdog to enforce it. The upgraded right would simply be enforced through employment tribunals or through the automatic unfair dismissal provisions that already exist in the Employment Rights Act 1996. The proposal would fit seamlessly within existing structures. It would not require a new quango. It is in line with the Government’s aims. It has been shown to work on other shores. The major change it would make is to offer pregnant women the sort of protection that is long overdue. We know that the protection that is currently written into law is not effective. At present, more mothers are made redundant during maternity leave than before or afterwards, despite the current protections in place.

Charities offering legal advice to pregnant women, such as Maternity Action, tell me that employers routinely ignore the existing protections. Take the story of one woman who called the Maternity Action helpline recently. She was booked in to give birth by caesarean the following week. Her employer had just told her that her role had been identified as being at risk of redundancy, along with the rest of her team. She was being asked to apply for one of the remaining roles, in line with the current law, but the assessments and interviews would happen over the next month—the period in which she would be in hospital and at home recovering from the caesarean. The existing regulations should have prevented her employer from demanding that she attend interviews while on maternity leave, but these rules have not been understood or applied by the employer in this case. I am afraid that that is just one of a catalogue of cases that were put forward to us by charities and to the Select Committee when it undertook its inquiry.

Under the current system, the odds are stacked against each of these women, as they are absent from the workplace during their maternity leave. For a woman to challenge her employer’s unlawful behaviour, she would have to go to an employment tribunal—not an attractive prospect for any employee, but particularly one who is looking after the needs of a newborn baby at home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer than 1% of women who have been discriminated against in pregnancy go to employment tribunal.

My Bill would strip out the complexity of the protection available to these women. We would be able to tell a woman that from the time she is pregnant to six months after she returns to work, she cannot be made redundant, unless the employer is closing down all of the business or ceasing the work that she is employed to do. Women who experience a stillbirth or miscarriage would similarly be protected for up to six months from the end of their pregnancy or any leave that they were entitled to. The woman’s employer would also be able to easily comprehend their duty, making it easier to comply and harder to inadvertently discriminate.

The change that I propose has the support of Members across the House and organisations such as Maternity Action and the Fawcett Society, which have been invaluable in helping to draft the Bill. Rather than simply extending the existing protections, which we know do not go far enough, we need robust legislation that takes the onus off women. That is precisely what this Bill will do. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mrs Maria Miller, Eddie Hughes, Vicky Ford, Dominic Raab, Jess Phillips, Sarah Champion, Jo Swinson, Liz Saville Roberts, Angela Crawley, Caroline Lucas, Helen Whately and Antoinette Sandbach present the Bill.

Mrs Maria Miller accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 392).

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Every single word that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has just said is, I think, supported by the whole House. Doubtless legislation would sail through the House if there were an opportunity for it to do so, but there is no private Members’ Bill day on which to advance such a Bill, and we cannot even have a ballot for private Members’ Bills until we have Prorogation and a new Session of Parliament. Is it not time we had one?

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The hon. Gentleman makes his own point in his own way. It is very clear, it is on the record, and doubtless, as he hopes, it will be picked up elsewhere. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman pessimistically chunters from a sedentary position, “and ignored”. He should have more belief in himself and more faith in the force of his own message. [Interruption.] The former Government Chief Whip chunters from a sedentary position, “No, he should be a realist.” Well, we are always grateful to the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). It is good at least to see a smile on his face.