Pregnancy and maternity discrimination remains a prevalent issue in the workplace, with research estimating that up to 54,000 women a year felt they had to leave their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity discrimination. As a result, earlier this year the government launched a consultation aimed at identifying what steps employers can take to address the problem and what additional protections are required for employees. The consultation closed in April this year and the government published its response at the end of July.
What is changing?
The government has confirmed that it plans to extend redundancy protection for pregnant employees and new parents.
An employee who is at risk of redundancy while she is on maternity leave already has the right to be prioritised over other employees who are also at risk of redundancy if a suitable alternative vacancy is available. This applies even if the employee on maternity leave is not the best candidate for the role.
However, evidence collected by the Women and Equalities Select Committee demonstrated that some new mothers are forced out of work when they return from a period of maternity leave. Therefore, the redundancy protection will be extended to cover:
Pregnant employees as soon as they have told their employer that they are pregnant (whether orally or in writing);
Employees who have returned from maternity leave within the previous six months, to start immediately once the maternity leave is finished; and
Employees who are primary adopters returning from adoption leave within the previous six months, to start immediately once the adoption leave is finished.
Parents returning from Shared Parental Leave will also have redundancy protection. However, the government has confirmed that more discussion will be needed to work out the practicalities of this right. Any period of protection will have to be proportionate to the period of Shared Parental Leave taken, given that some employees may choose to take only a very short period of leave and therefore do not face the same risk of discrimination as a mother returning from a long period of maternity leave.
This redundancy protection will not apply to those returning from paternity leave due to the relatively short length of the leave.
The government will be consulting further on whether to extend the current time limit in which an employee can bring a claim of discrimination, harassment and victimisation (including for pregnancy and maternity) from three months to six months – so this is an area to keep an eye on for the future!
The government has also committed to establishing a taskforce of employer and family representative groups to make recommendations and develop an action plan with the aim of making it easier for pregnant women and new mothers to stay in work.
What does this mean for employers?
The government has stated that it is committed to ensuring that the issue of pregnancy and maternity discrimination is addressed; therefore it is important for employers to be aware of their obligations and keep up with the changes.
At present, there is no date set for when these changes will come into force; however employers should consider their current policies and practices to ensure that they are compliant with the legislation.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.