"Managing People with Morecrofts"

"Urgent action" needed to protect new and expectant mothers

by Kelly Faulkner

The choice between having a career and a family should not be a decision feared by women today. Yet, MPs are demanding urgent Government action to tackle a “shocking and unacceptable” rise in workplace discrimination against expectant and new mothers. A report published last month by the Women and Equalities Select Committee revealed that the number of women during and after pregnancy forced to leave their jobs has almost doubled to 54,000 since 2005. It is believed that the rise in the number of women in casual, agency and zero-hours work might be one reason for the doubling of discrimination.

Pregnancy discrimination in the UK is universal; it is present across all industries and income brackets. According to an earlier study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a shocking 77% of pregnant women and new mothers currently experience discrimination at work, compared with 45% ten years ago. However, differences in the nature of mistreatment suffered do exist. Studies have found that those on low incomes tend to face discrimination during pregnancy, while those on higher incomes are more likely to experience discrimination on their return to work. Committee chair, Maria Miller, said: “The arrival of a new baby puts family finances under extreme pressure yet, despite this, thousands of expectant and new mothers have no choice but to leave their work because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination.”

In a bid to counter the rising levels of discrimination, the Committee has called for the UK to take drastic action and put in place a German-style system where it is more difficult to make expectant and new mothers redundant. The German system permits dismissal of expectant and new mothers in only very rare cases, such as where an employer has become liquidated. Currently, in the UK, while it is illegal to dismiss a woman for reasons relating to having a child, it is still possible for an employer to find other reasons for her redundancy. 

Given their findings, the Committee has recommended greater protections, including changes in the law, paid time off for antenatal appointments for all workers, and a reduction in the current fee of £1,200 to take a case to a tribunal, which discourages those discriminated against to seek justice. The report also recommends the introduction of individual risk assessments in order to help reduce the number of women (one in 25), who left their jobs because of failures to address their health and safety concerns regarding pregnancy and maternity. 

The report has been heralded as a long overdue “roadmap” for tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Implementing its recommendations could, according to the director of Maternity Action, “reverse the increase in discrimination and move towards a situation where pregnancy discrimination is rare”. The Government’s response awaits.  

Summary of the Committee’s key recommendations:

•Employers should be required to undertake an individual risk assessment when they are informed that a woman who works for them is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding. 

•The right to paid time off for antenatal appointments should be extended to workers. The Government should review the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to workers and legislate to give greater parity between workers and employees. 

•The Government should increase protection from redundancy so that new and expectant mothers can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. 

•There should be a “substantial reduction" in the £1,200 fee for women taking a pregnancy-related discrimination case to an employment tribunal. It is also recommended that the three-month limit on taking cases to a tribunal should be doubled to six months.

•The Government should monitor access to free, good-quality, one-to-one advice on pregnancy and maternity discrimination issues and assess whether additional resources are required.  It is important that anyone facing these issues seek professional legal advice as early as possible as such matters may be able to be dealt with on a contingency fee basis.  

Read the full report here