Discrimination against pregnant employees and those returning from maternity leave remains a big concern. The Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill 2019-21 currently being presented to the House of Commons might ease those concerns.

According to a survey for the Equality and Human Rights Commission carried out in 2018, the number of women forced to leave their jobs because of discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity is estimated to be over 50,000 women. That discrimination may take many forms but legislative change may be ahead in relation to the rights of pregnant employees and mothers returning from maternity leave in a redundancy situation.

What are their rights at the moment?

Currently, the time from the beginning of pregnancy to the end of maternity leave (if a woman is entitled to maternity leave) or to the end of a two-week period following the end of the pregnancy (if she is not) is known as the ‘protected period’.

An employer cannot discriminate against a woman during the protected period because of her pregnancy or an illness relating to her pregnancy. Further, they cannot discriminate against a woman because she is on compulsory maternity leave or is exercising or has sought to exercise her right to ordinary or additional maternity leave.

If a genuine redundancy situation arises, pregnant women or women on maternity leave can be made redundant but there are particular protections which apply to those on maternity leave. Such women have a prior right to be offered any suitable alternative vacancy within the employer in priority to other potentially redundant employees but importantly, this right does not apply to pregnant women and comes to an end immediately on a woman’s return from maternity leave. There is a concern that this protection does not go far enough and that women are still exposed to the risk of discrimination.

How has the change come about?

The Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill was first introduced in 2019 but failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the prorogation around Brexit. This meant that the Bill was unable to proceed.

Maria Miller, a MP for Basingstoke, reintroduced The Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill to the House of Commons on 8 July 2020. The Bill seeks to prohibit redundancy during pregnancy and maternity leave and also in the six months after the end of the pregnancy or leave, except for specified circumstances.

Ms Miller initially presented the Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill in 2019 following a consultation by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which proposed that existing protections, such as women being offered any suitable alternative work that is available, be extended to six months after maternity leave has ended.

Of that proposal, Ms Miller has commented, ‘Extending the current provisions to six months would simply entrench a system that we know does not work. My Bill proposes a much simpler and cleaner protection, drawing on proposals from the Women and Equalities Committee.’

What does the Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill propose?

In presenting her Bill, Ms Miller has made reference to provisions currently being used in Germany whereby women are protected without the need to challenge employers by taking them to an employment tribunal. Litigation is time-consuming, costly and stressful at the best of times without worrying about the needs of your newborn child.

The Bill proposes to make protection simple. If the Bill is passed, from the day a woman is pregnant to six months after they have returned to work she cannot be made redundant unless the business is closing down or ceasing work in the area in which the woman works. Women who unfortunately experience a stillbirth or miscarriage will also be protected for up to six months from the end of their pregnancy or any leave that they would ordinarily be entitled to.

Obviously, there would be unavoidable circumstances to bear in mind, such as a company falling into administration, but this would mark a significant change to the way in which current protection in this area operates.

What’s next?

The next stage for this Bill is a second reading which is due to take place on 16 October 2020. The Bill will be debated and the overall principles will be considered. The Bill has cross-party backing and is also widely supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and two of the largest unions in the country (Unison and Usdaw). We will keep you updated as the Bill makes its way through Parliament.

For further advice on redundancies or if you have a question about an employment matter, please contact our Employment team on employment@stephens-scown.co.uk or 01392 210700.