The government has been accused of dragging its feet over new legal protections for pregnant women and new mothers at work, as a private member’s bill is introduced in the House of Commons today.

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, former cabinet minister Maria Miller MP, is today pushing for new protections for pregnant women and mothers by introducing a 10-Minute Rule Bill.

Between January and April this year a government consultation sought views on extending legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers on maternity leave for up to six months after they return to work. It also received views on giving the same rights to parents returning from adoption leave and shared parental leave.

The consultation came on the heels of research by the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which found that one in nine women said they had been fired or made redundant when they returned to work after having a child, or treated so badly they felt forced out of their job.

The research estimated 54,000 women per year may lose their job due to pregnancy or maternity.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee Committee, chaired by Maria Miller MP, demanded urgent action on the issue in August 2016, calling for UK women to have protections similar to those in Germany after a “shocking” increase in workplace pregnancy discrimination over the past decade.

Its report requested the government set out a detailed plan within two years or risk a further rise in pregnant women and mothers being forced out of work. Recommendations included changes to health and safety practices, preventing discriminatory redundancies and an increase in protection for casual, agency and zero-hours workers.

In response to the report, the government, in January 2017, said it would “consider further and bring forward proposals to ensure that the protections in place for those who are pregnant or returning from maternity leave are sufficient”. But progress has been slow and no government bill has been introduced.

When publishing the Committee’s submission to the Government’s consultation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination protections earlier this month, Miller criticised the lack of progress made, stating that ministers had had a long time in which to implement the recommendations.

She said: “We warned almost three years ago of the significant discrimination and poor treatment faced by 54,000 pregnant women and mothers at work each year.

“Family life and the economy will both suffer unless workplace practices are brought into the 21st century. Providing effective protection against redundancy for pregnant women would be a really good start. Whilst the recent BEIS consultation is a step in the right direction, neither new parents nor the economy can afford to wait any longer for pregnant women and new mums to be confident of proper protection from redundancy which has been in place in Germany for many years. That is why I have introduced this 10-minute Rule Bill with cross-party support.”

In an article in the Telegraph on Sunday, co-authored with former Brexit minister Dominic Raab, Miller added that “encouraging fathers to take up paternity leave by making it a day-one right in a new job, and paying the two weeks paternity leave at 90% of normal pay, in line with the terms of maternity leave” would also help women in the workplace.

As an example of the protection needed for women the article cited the experience of athlete Jo Pavey, whose Nike sponsorship was suspended when she announced she was expecting a baby. She said she felt “punished for being pregnant”.

Whilst the recent BEIS consultation is a step in the right direction, neither new parents nor the economy can afford to wait any longer for pregnant women and new mums to be confident of proper protection from redundancy which has been in place in Germany for many years” – Maria Miller

The Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill 2019 seeks to prohibit redundancy during pregnancy and maternity leave and for six months after the end of the pregnancy or leave, except in specified circumstances.

The 10-minute rule allows a backbench MP to make their case for a new Bill in a speech lasting up to 10 minutes. An opposing speech may also be made before the House decides whether or not the Bill should be introduced. If the MP is successful, the Bill is taken to have had its first reading.

However, the parliament website suggests the chances of success for the Bill might be slim. It says: “Ten-minute rule bills are often an opportunity for members to voice an opinion on a subject or aspect of existing legislation, rather than a serious attempt to get a bill passed”.

In recent times about 10-15% of private members’ bills have been passed into law as opposed to more than 90% of government bills. About 130 10-minute rule bills are currently before parliament.

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