Maternity Discrimination – Westminster Hall debate – 14th July 2016


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and those who signed the request to the Backbench Business Committee to secure this important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). I look forward to testing the family-friendliness of this Parliament on Monday, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), as we are both bringing our children down next week. We will see how that goes.

I find it difficult to believe that we in this House continue to have to debate and protest about maternity discrimination. It says an awful lot about the way women and children are regarded in society, and we must all seek to improve the situation through our words and deeds, in this place and beyond. Maternity Action has said

“both pregnancy and maternity discrimination is both widespread and deeply entrenched, with a significant minority of employers holding outdated and wholly inappropriate attitudes.”

It is absolutely unacceptable that 77% of women experience discrimination or negative treatment during pregnancy or maternity, or on their return to work. Maternity discrimination is not a niche issue; it is something that can happen to any woman during pregnancy or while going through the early stages of IVF treatment. Equally, it can happen to people who are adopting, or those seeking paternity leave. It also applies to the period after birth and to breastfeeding, as I was glad to see the hon. Member for Harrow West highlight. There is no explicit legal obligation to provide breastfeeding breaks. One of Maternity Action’s excellent series of cards says:

“While there is no explicit legal right to breastfeeding breaks and facilities at work, employers must meet their obligations to a breastfeeding employee under health and safety, flexible working, and anti-discrimination law. And, not only is it simple and inexpensive for employers to do so, but it brings real business benefits such as increased productivity and staff loyalty.”

I absolutely concur with those sentiments. As someone who has breastfed both children at work, being away from them is very difficult and can be painful and embarrassing.

We need to think of ways to get around that and to support mothers when they return to work. We cannot have women giving up breastfeeding, which is so important to maternal and child health, because their employer will not make reasonable adjustments to allow them to do it. We cannot just accept that that discrimination happens. We must find a way of making that kind of discrimination as publicly unacceptable as any other. Ignoring this important issue leads to the extreme ​circumstances we saw in the Sports Direct case, in which a woman gave birth on a toilet floor. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the impact on child and maternal health during pregnancy and the early weeks of life can be significant and long-lasting, and we need to think about that when we consider this issue.

It was only recently that we were discussing this issue in this place, in November last year, just prior to the publication of the EHRC report and research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. During that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) made a number of reasonable demands on the Government, which I will briefly repeat. First, he asked that the Government take a key role in ensuring employers are well-informed and clear in their obligations and that smaller businesses in particular are supported; secondly, that the Government do all in their power to inform women of their rights, highlighting best practice and protecting vulnerable groups of women, particularly young women, ethnic minorities, those from other nations who might be unfamiliar with their rights under UK law, agency workers and those in non-unionised workplaces; and thirdly that the information services that support women be well-funded. We cannot rely only on trade unions or websites or on picking things up by chance. We need to fund the services that will actively represent and advise women. Fourthly and lastly, he asked that women be able to access justice via employment tribunals. Since fees were introduced in 2013, there has been a significant and disturbing drop in the number of cases brought. The hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned some of the statistics earlier on, so I shall not repeat them, but it can cost up to £1,200 to make an employment tribunal claim, which can rise to £5,700 if more than one person makes a claim, with further potential costs such as, for example, £1,600 if the decision is appealed.

Those costs represent an enormous barrier to justice, particularly at a time when women are at their most vulnerable. The number of women who actually reach that final tribunal is less than 1%. That is tiny. We need to do much better in ensuring women receive the justice they deserve. At the excellent event earlier on, hosted by Maternity Action, it was highlighted that there can be a gagging clause put in the settlement for women who settle out of court, so they cannot even talk about the experience they have had with that employers. Those employers will get away with that. Fellow women in that company might not know that has happened and other women seeking employment with that company will not be aware it is an employer they need to be wary of.

I am proud to say the Scottish Government are committed to abolishing tribunal fees, which is a significant step. We are not at all complacent in Scotland about the challenges. To that end, my good friend, Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Employability and Training, announced at the end of June that he is going to chair a working group to identify action to tackle this unacceptable discrimination. That group will work with NHS Health Scotland to ensure that work environments are safe and healthy for pregnant women and new mothers and to provide employment rights information for pregnant ​women at that first contact. The group will also create guidelines for employers to ensure best practice in the recruitment, retention and development of pregnant workers. The Scottish Government also pledged earlier this year to improve public monitoring of pregnancy and maternity under the Scottish public sector equality duty. As might be expected, the EHRC has welcomed that announcement, saying:

“These commitments from the Scottish Government are very encouraging and show the leadership for change that is needed to create a positive workplace that supports pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.”

I will briefly touch on some of the issues of returning to work after pregnancy. I asked on Twitter for people to share their experiences of returning to work after pregnancy. They are fairly typical and depressing. One woman said she had left her stressful workplace when pregnant because it was not worth the hassle to stay, while one commented on the discriminatory attitudes and mindset of her managers. Another woman who had worked for eight years with her employer in a reasonably senior role submitted a request on returning to work after maternity leave to go part time or job share, only to be told it was full time or resignation. She felt she was being asked to choose between her child and her job. Those are by no means the worst stories I have heard and colleagues will no doubt share more. They are very much the tip of the iceberg.

Joeli Brearley, of Pregnant Then Screwed, who is at the back of the room with her gorgeous little baby, has been collecting those examples. I urge the Minister and her team to look at the Pregnant Then Screwed website for those examples because they are absolutely brutal. They must be seen and they must be challenged. I encourage all women who are watching this debate to contact their MP and to contact Government Ministers to let them know it is happening. If we do not know which employers are involved we cannot challenge them and we cannot make change.

I also highlight a man who contacted me about paternity leave. He asked about paternity leave in his workplace, only to be met with the response, “Can we say no to that?” No, they cannot; that is not possible. There needs to be more education about the rights of families in the workplace more widely. I visited One Parent Families Scotland last weekend, which highlighted the treatment of pregnant women and new mothers by Jobcentre Plus. It has identified that women are being forced to come off the benefits they are on and encouraged to start thinking about going back to work. They are asked to attend appointments that are not necessary, but they are being called in anyway. That is something that needs to be looked at more widely.

I also highlight young women, in particular, and the EHRC’s “Power to the Bump” campaign, which is absolutely excellent. It highlights that, among all women, those under 25 are six times more likely to report being dismissed as a result of their pregnancy. Will the Minister reflect on that and see what more specifically we can do to support young women? Young women may not know their rights and may not expect to be pregnant. They might suddenly end up in circumstances in which they are having to make serious choices and perhaps there is something to be put in school curriculums to inform young people of their rights around the issue. There is a bit of a gap there because we are not doing that at the ​moment. All women should know what their rights are for when that time comes. School is a good place to start with that.

In their response to the EHRC report on maternity discrimination, the UK Government said they are

“committed to creating a strong workforce that is fit for the future. To do this we need to make sure that there are no barriers to everyone fulfilling their potential, enabling pregnant women and new mothers to participate fully if they choose to, and giving employers access to the widest possible pool of talent.”

As has been said, the Government accepted many of the report’s recommendations. However, they notably rejected some of those concerning maternity and pregnancy discrimination, in particular around making changes to the employment tribunal fee system to ensure fees are not a barrier for women experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination. They said:

“It is too soon to consider whether any action is needed here. In June 2015 the Government announced the start of the post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in the Employment Tribunal. This will consider, insofar as this is possible, any equality impacts that have resulted from the introduction of fees. The review is well underway and will report in due course.”

I urge the Minister to bring forward the response. We need to know the Government’s views and the results of that review.

The further Government response was that:

“There is no evidence from the responses to the research into pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination to suggest that there is a need to increase the time limit for a woman to bring an Employment Tribunal claim.”

As has been said earlier, three months is not good enough; perhaps even six months is not good enough. Some of the women whose cases I have seen only found out about their rights after the event, which is not good enough either. There needs to be less of a bar on that, so that employers do not get away with dismissing somebody because of their pregnancy.

Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that having access to justice is the bedrock of a civilised society? If we cannot offer that to our women and men, and to parents across the country, we are doing them a disservice and we do ourselves a disservice, in terms of our international standing.

Alison Thewliss: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is so important that there is not only action, support and information, but that, if employers do not comply with the law, that there is recourse and a means of testing those employers and making them accountable for what they have done.

I hope what I and others have said in the debate will change the Government’s mind and will bring about improvements. Society and business are losing the talent and skills of women in those jobs. Women feel devalued. They may be lost to the labour market or end up in self-employment, not of their own choosing, which brings its own set of challenges. Maternity discrimination is the reinforcement and perpetuation of the gender pay gap, and it undermines women’s place in society. We have a new Prime Minister who claims to be a feminist. I call on her and on the Government to take leadership and to ensure that that is true in deeds and not just words.​