Pregnant women and new mothers to receive greater redundancy protection under proposed bill

Coronavirus crisis has greatly exacerbated the threat of maternity discrimination, warn MPs and charities

A bill to give pregnant women and new mothers enhanced legal protections against redundancy was reintroduced to parliament yesterday (8 July) amid warnings from MPs and campaigners that coronavirus threatens to compound existing maternity discrimination.

The Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, presented in the House of Commons by Conservative MP Maria Miller as a 10-minute rule bill, aims to provide women protection from redundancy when pregnant, in the six months following their child’s birth and during maternity leave.

Miller explained that government data showed thousands of women leave their jobs when pregnant because of discriminatory experiences at work, and one in 20 are made redundant. She said she feared the pandemic would exacerbate these underlying workplace problems. 

“Every year, 53,000 women leave their jobs when pregnant because of how they’ve been treated,” Miller said. “My bill strengthens existing laws to better protect pregnant women and new mothers by prohibiting employers from making them redundant.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Miller further explained the pandemic had shown that “too many employers [failed] to provide the basic protection pregnant women and new mums are entitled to by law”. She said the UK needed protection “with real teeth” for such workers in the wake of Covid-19.

“Women are integral to the future success of the UK economy,” Miller wrote. “We need all employees to be treated fairly, on their merit, not discriminated against simply because they are pregnant or new mums.”

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Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, one of the groups supporting the bill, said hundreds of women had contacted the charity’s advice line about threats to their jobs. She said many women found, for example, that the individual covering their maternity leave was being kept on while their role was made redundant. “The situation will only worsen as the furlough scheme winds down over the summer,” Bragg said. 

“The current law on redundancy and maternity is complex, poorly understood and difficult to enforce,” she added. “It is desperately unfair that mothers are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, having to battle unfair redundancies as well as taking on an increased share of domestic work.”

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, added that without enhanced protection, pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave would be “collateral damage” as the UK entered an economic downturn. 

“Pregnant women and new mothers are the first to be pushed out of their jobs when a company is making cuts,” Brearley said. “If companies want to start supporting women now before action is taken by the government, they could start by offering better paternity leave for dads, and reduce the risk of singling out mums as the only ones taking leave.”

She added that businesses could support mothers by setting quotas for women and BAME staff at all levels, and by introducing increased flexibility to enable staff to juggle work and caring responsibilities.

A previous iteration of the bill – which mirrors redundancy protections covering women in Germany – failed to complete its passage through parliament before the end of the session in 2019. As such, Miller reintroduced it yesterday as a 10-minute rule bill before the House of Commons. It is scheduled for a second reading on 16 October.

The bill is supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, Working Families, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison and Usdaw. 

In July 2019, the government announced that pregnant workers, those on maternity leave and new parents returning to work after an extended period of family leave would benefit from enhanced redundancy protections. The change would extend redundancy protection for six months from the date of a mother’s return to work, as well as covering those taking adoption or shared parental leave. 

However, a recent House of Commons petitions committee report on maternity leave said there was no timescale in place for the introduction of this enhanced protection. Without urgent legislation, the committee said this change would come “much too late for the cohort of parents... returning to work during and in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic”.