But does the government’s response go far enough to tackle the issue?
The government recently issued its response to recommendations from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on tackling pregnancy and maternity related discrimination in the workplace. This followed the largest ever research project into the subject, commissioned by the government, drawing on the experiences of over 3,000 working mothers and employers.
The EHRC’s findings suggest that a small but significant minority of employers are failing to comply with the law. According to the research, 77 per cent of employees had experienced a negative or discriminatory experience either during their pregnancy, their maternity leave or on returning to work.
In addition to legal compliance, it seems a major shift is required in the way that employers view and treat pregnant employees and women of childbearing age if their talent is to be fully exploited. It is highly questionable whether the measures the government has committed to in its response, such as raising awareness of legal rights, goes far enough to tackle this issue.
The EHRC emphasised the economic benefits of retaining the talent and experience of pregnant women. In response, the government restates positive measures it feels it has already taken in this area, such as working to close the gender pay gap and introducing up to 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents. But it has also committed to exploring the possibility of a collective insurance scheme to spread the cost of an enhanced maternity package for small to medium sized businesses, although it backs away from any interference with what are commercial decisions for employers.
Recruitment was a key area of concern for the EHRC. In the research, 70 per cent of employers stated that women should declare pregnancies at interview and 25 per cent felt it was reasonable to ask women about motherhood plans during the recruitment process. The government rejected its suggestions that change was needed, on the grounds that current legislation was sufficient (the law prevents employers from asking female candidates discriminatory questions at interview) but it did commit to working with the commission and business groups to raise employers’ awareness of the rights of pregnant women.
The EHRC also suggested increasing the time limit for bringing a pregnancy or maternity discrimination claim from three to six months and altering tribunal fees for women experiencing such discrimination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both these suggestions were rejected.
The research identified particular sectors (in particular the care, leisure and other service industries) where 54 per cent of new and expectant mothers experienced risks to, or effects on, their health and safety. Here the government has accepted the commission’s recommendations and has confirmed that the Health and Safety Executive will take these forward. They include raising awareness of employers’ health and safety obligations towards pregnant women and new mothers, and ensuring any general risk assessment information deals with potential risks to these employees.
Ensuring all women are aware of their rights during pregnancy, maternity leave and following their return to work, is a key part of the process to safeguarding those rights and the commission was concerned about the lack of, and ease of access to, this kind of information. The government has said it will review the information currently available and consider using healthcare professionals (and the MATB1 form) to provide information on employment rights.
The government has said it will monitor progress made towards reducing maternity related discrimination, relying heavily on Acas to share information and emerging trends with the commission as a result of the advice provided, and the outcomes of the early conciliation process. There is also the possibility of published Acas data being opened up to greater analysis by external bodies.
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