What do the redundancy protections for pregnant workers mean for HR?

Jo Moseley examines proposed measures that offer safeguards to expectant mothers and new parents when job cuts are made

Credit: Nattawan ̌jayawan/EyeEm/Getty Images

Pregnant women and new parents will receive greater protection from being made redundant under new proposed legislation. The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill started life as a private members' bill but is being backed by the government and, therefore, is likely to become law.

In 2019, the government pledged to introduce legislation to extend redundancy protection for employees taking maternity leave (and for other new parents) following the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2016 investigation into pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work. This concluded that up to 54,000 mothers a year faced discrimination as a result of having taken maternity leave.

That year, the government introduced the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, but it failed to complete its passage through parliament. After Boris Johnson won the general election, he said his government would reintroduce this legislation via a new employment bill, but nothing happened. In October 2022, Liz Truss’s government said it would back the new private members' bill and it is progressing through parliament. 

How will the bill protect new parents?

Under current rules, before making an employee on maternity leave, shared parental leave or adoption leave redundant, employers are obliged to offer them a suitable alternative vacancy where one exists in priority to anyone else who is provisionally selected for redundancy.

The new bill will extend protection to apply to pregnant women before they start maternity leave and after they return to work. It will also protect new parents returning to work from adoption or shared parental leave. The government believes this will “shield new parents and expectant mothers from workplace discrimination, offering them greater job security at an important time in their lives”. 

However, not everyone agrees. Pressure group Maternity Action argues that the existing protection is little more than a “mirage” and that employers will be able to “ignore or act in deliberate breach of the law, safe in the knowledge that, having just given birth or been away from the workplace for up to a year, a woman is most unlikely to bring an expensive employment tribunal claim – the only means of challenging an unfair redundancy”. It has called for fundamental reform, specifically a legal ban on making a pregnant woman or new mother redundant, other than in limited and clearly specified circumstances, such as closure of all or part of a workplace.

In 2019, and again in 2020, Maria Miller MP introduced a private member’s bill that would have offered this level of protection. Both failed because of lack of government support.

How long will this protection last?

The bill provides a framework, which empowers the government to introduce regulations that will set out the detail. The press release, issued recently by the government, made it clear that protection will start from the point at which the employee tells their employer that they are pregnant (we don't yet know whether they will need to provide a MAT1 form first) and end 18 months from the start of their maternity leave. Therefore, a woman who takes the maximum maternity leave of 52 weeks will get an extra six months' protection.

Similar provisions will apply to people who are adopting a child or taking shared parental leave.

Does this mean employers won't be able to make pregnant women redundant?

No. The protection will work in the same way as it currently does for women on maternity leave. 

Redundancy is a potentially fair reason for dismissing an employee. However, in a redundancy situation, you are also required to show you followed a fair procedure before making any employee redundant. This will normally entail deciding who is in the pool and adopting a fair selection procedure. You will need to pool all relevant employees including pregnant women. However, if a pregnant woman is provisionally selected for redundancy, she will have the right to be offered any suitable alternative vacancy that exists in your organisation. This means she takes priority over every other candidate who is not on maternity or other relevant leave. 

To decide if a job is suitable and appropriate the current law says it must be no worse than the woman’s previous job with regard to location, terms, conditions and status. We expect the new regulations to mirror this. 

Difficulties can arise when more than one employee in a selection process has the right to be offered 'any suitable vacancy'. This might occur where two women in the same department are pregnant and/or on maternity leave at the same time (something that might happen more often once protection is extended over a longer period). 

When will this come into force?

Not yet. The bill is still being considered by the House of Commons and will have to go before the Lords too. If it becomes law, it will not change anything until the government introduces new regulations, which will set out the detail.

It's possible that a Sunak-led government will take a different view and withdraw the government's support for the bill. Assuming that doesn't happen, the bill is likely to come into force sometime next year.

Jo Moseley is an employment law specialist at Irwin Mitchell