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Maternity Leave, Adoption Leave and Shared Parental Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Maternity Leave, Adoption Leave and Shared Parental Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, these regulations were laid in draft before the House on 11 December 2023. They are being introduced using powers inserted into the Employment Rights Act 1996 by the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023. I was pleased to note that the latter, as a Private Member’s Bill, attracted support from all sides both here and in the other place. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, and Dan Jarvis MP for bringing that important Act forward.

According to research published in 2016 by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in nine mothers reported that they were dismissed or made compulsorily redundant where others in their workplaces were not, or treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job. If scaled up to the general population, that could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year. Although that data is from some time ago, we know that the problem persists.

Under the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, which we call MAPLE for short, redundancy protections are already in place for a mother on maternity leave. These regulations put a mother on maternity leave in a preferential position in a redundancy situation. There are parallel negotiations that have the same effect for parents taking adoption leave or shared parental leave. Under MAPLE, before making an employee who is on maternity leave redundant, employers have an obligation to offer them a suitable alternative vacancy if one is available, not just to invite them to apply for one.

The regulations we are debating will extend that existing redundancy protection so that it is available during pregnancy and for a period after returning to work from relevant parental leave. That is maternity, adoption and shared parental leave. This will help to address the issues that the research identified. We hope it will alleviate some of the anxiety about job security that a pregnant woman or new parent may face.

The new regulations will amend the existing regulations covering relevant parental care. This means that MAPLE-type protections could be in place from the point when a woman tells her employer she is pregnant and continue for 18 months after the birth of the child, which will include the period of relevant parental leave.

The 18-month protection period has two main purposes. First, it ensures that a mother returning from 12 months of maternity leave will receive six months’ additional redundancy protection when she goes back to work. This meets the commitment that the Government made in the consultation response. Secondly, a single, consistent and clear period of protection is a simple way of accommodating the flexibility of shared parental leave, as well as the interaction between it and other types of parental leave. Creating a bespoke approach for these and other scenarios would have introduced considerable complexity into the regulations, which is why we have opted for the simplicity and clarity of a single period of protection.

The period of protection from redundancy on return to work is activated immediately when someone returns to the workplace following a period of maternity or adoption leave. However, the regulations introduce a minimum qualifying period for those taking shared parental leave alone; by “alone”, I mean that they would have previously not taken a period of maternity or adoption leave. This is to avoid the situation where a parent who has taken just a few weeks of shared parental leave receives 18 months’ additional protection in a redundancy situation.

When we spoke with the stakeholders, they considered that it would be disproportionate to extend this level of protection to someone who had taken only a short period of shared parental leave. For this reason, the regulations require a parent to have taken a minimum period of six continuous weeks of shared parental leave to activate the additional redundancy protection once they have returned to work.

These measures will provide valuable support and protection for pregnant women and parents after parental leave. The Government are pleased to have supported the Private Member’s Bill and have delivered these regulations.

My Lords, I rise briefly in an unusual situation. We Greens in your Lordships’ House are sometimes accused of not giving the Government credit where it is due, but I want to congratulate the Government on this statutory instrument and applaud the progress that is made in it.

We should also applaud the fact that behind this has been a huge amount of campaigning of public concern. I note that the charity and campaigning group, Pregnant Then Screwed, which took four awards at the Third Sector Awards last year, has been campaigning on these issues for a very long time and is making real progress. This is a real demonstration that campaigning works; we have seen something happen here, so I can only congratulate the campaigners and the Government on this.

I want to put a couple of questions to the Minister. What are the Government going to do to ensure that employers and employees know about this change in the law? What kind of publicity campaign will there be? The Minister referred in his introduction to the fact that the figures that the Government were relying on were quite old. Are there plans to update and take assessment both of the current situation and of what happens in the months and years after this statutory instrument comes into effect? What reporting back will there be to the House and the other place so that we can continue to monitor this important area, given that it is important to individuals and households, but also important to ensure that people are able to remain in the workplace?

My Lords, this is the second time that we are meeting across the Dispatch Box. If it continues, people will start talking. I thank the Minister for the overview and explanation of this statutory instrument, which builds on the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023. I fondly remember the debate on this Bill last spring. It was the first time I had the honour of speaking from the Front Bench in the main Chamber. Not only did the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, praise the work of the TUC in the development of this legislation but we agreed to have a massive group hug.

Pleasingly, almost exactly nine months after this group hug, are now delivering additional legislation through this statutory instrument. It provides similar rights in a redundancy situation to pregnant women and new parents who have recently returned from a period of maternity, adoption or shared parental leave lasting six weeks or more. Additionally, the protection will now start when the employee tells the employer about the pregnancy.

This legislation is supported by my friends and colleagues in the trade union movement. In fact, some of these measures were discussed in the preparation of the Bill last year, which, at the risk of disrupting this very collegiate atmosphere, I remind noble Lords was a Private Member’s Bill from my friend, the honourable Member for Barnsley Central.

As supportive as we are of this change, it does not come without implications for employers, especially those who may be considering restructuring shortly after the instrument comes into effect on 6 April, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. What steps are the Government taking to make sure employees are prepared? Additionally, is there any additional monitoring for the implementation period where employees may not be abreast of the new law?

Among other possible difficulties with implementation, women may now feel under pressure to inform their employer of their pregnancy very early if there is an impending redundancy exercise. What consideration have the Government given to this likelihood and potential steps to help protect women from this? Another potential difficulty comes from the notification requirements and record keeping. The regulations are not clear as to the form of the notification required. Can the Minister shed any light, or would this be a matter for the courts? Would oral notification suffice, and what would then happen if accounts varied?

Since 2019, we have been promised more than 20 times an employment Bill that will

“protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work”.

Will the Minister finally accept that this long-promised Bill is a mirage and will not be delivered? I look forward to his responses to our various questions. Other than that, we are very supportive of these regulations.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions.

I come first to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I appreciate her support on this matter. I know that she is close to the campaigning charities; it is good to be able to report that their campaigning results in meaningful change in legislation. That should be noted. I agree that the big issue now is communication. On many of these matters, it is now all about how we work closely to get the message out. We will work closely with the Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Advisory Board on the guidance and on basic ITJ promotion. We will also work with the board to work out how best to monitor and measure a more up-to-date labour workforce in this area. We expect to see great improvement in this area with the legislation passed, but it will be down to the communication.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Leong. I welcome his support for the regulations, which shows that we can work together when we have common interests. It shows that more unites us than divides us, especially when it comes to helping the more vulnerable members of our society. Clearly, there are philosophical differences between the two sides of this place when it comes to employment matters and the employment Bill, which was referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Leong.

We think that employment law in this country is in good shape, as proven by the fact that we now have 33 million people, out of a population of 65 million, in work—a record number—and by the protections that they have cascading down while they are employees. From the self-employed through to parallel workers, all now have legislation affecting and contributing to their safety and rights. We would therefore say that the focus for our Government should be to help the 5 million people who are economically inactive, have fallen out of the workplace and need a pathway back to work. We need to focus our efforts on helping that cohort back to work, because we know that there is a lot of talent in that cohort that is currently being wasted.

Putting those philosophical differences aside, I believe that we have consensus on this matter. The Government are pleased to be able to deliver these stronger redundancy protections for pregnant women and those returning from parental leave. We want to see these regulations succeed, because we have an opportunity here today to make a real difference to the lives of those who may rely on this protection in future. Supporting these measures is in line with our ongoing commitment to supporting workers and building a highly skilled, high-productivity and high-wage economy.

Motion agreed.