Pregnancy & maternity discrimination: a manifesto for 2015

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Maternity Action is the UK’s leading charity committed to ending inequality and improving the health and well-being of pregnant women, partners and young children – from conception through to the child’s early years. Project Officer, Richard Dunstan, announces the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination manifesto for the 2015 General Election.

In 2005, three years before the global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession, a landmark study by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that half of all pregnant women suffered a related disadvantage at work, with 30,000 forced out of their job each year. Almost a decade on, such pregnancy and maternity discrimination is more common than ever, with as many as 60,000 women pushed out of work in 2014.

Until last year, key government ministers flatly refused to accept that there is even a problem. But last November, the then Minister for Women & Equalities, Maria Miller, acknowledged that such unlawful discrimination “remains prevalent and more needs to be done to tackle it”. Announcing £1m of extra funding for a new Equalities & Human Rights Commission study of the issue, the minister said “it is unacceptable that women suffer from discrimination when they become pregnant [and] I am determined that we tackle these systemic problems.”

However, since 2010 it has become harder than ever for women to challenge such discrimination. The supply of free employment advice has been decimated by spending cuts and the abolition of almost all civil legal aid: just since April 2013, ten law centres – including all three in Manchester– have closed due to loss of funding.

Perhaps more damagingly still, since July 2013 those needing to pursue an employment tribunal claim for pregnancy, maternity or sex discrimination have had to pay up to £1,200 in upfront fees. Bringing a tribunal claim has always been a costly and daunting challenge, especially for pregnant women and new mothers: the odds are stacked against them at a time when they need to protect their own and their baby’s health, and when any savings are at a premium. But the introduction of hefty tribunal fees has only served to further deter women with well-founded claims from taking legal action.

Over the nine months prior to the introduction of fees, some 44,000 employers had an employment tribunal case brought against them. But over the nine months up to June 2014, just 15,750 did. Sex discrimination claims are down 84 per cent, and pregnancy dismissal claims down 38 per cent. On average, each of the UK’s 1.2m employers now faces a tribunal case just once every 58 years, and a sex discrimination claim once every 330 years.

With pregnant women, new mothers and their families facing the biggest living standards crisis in a generation, the government elected in May 2015 needs to take robust action on this issue. The scale of the problem – and the detrimental impact on women, their families, and on gender equality – demands a collective response by ministers right across government.

To this end,the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination – the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, NCT, the Royal College of Midwives, the TUC, the unions UNISON and Unite, Working Families, and YESS – has drawn up a Manifesto for May 2015, setting out eight key policy actions for the government elected next year. These concrete measures to ensure fairness and job security for all working women during pregnancy and maternity leave include:

  • Drawing up a cross-departmental plan for rapidly implementing any recommendations from the Equality & Human Rights Commission’s ongoing study – due to report in mid-2015 – which have broad support.

 

  • Abolishing the fees for discrimination and other employment tribunal claims introduced in July 2013. There is now consensus – including the TUC, CBI and Federation of Small Businesses – that the Ministry of Justice has got it badly wrong on fees. In the words of the CBI, claimant “fees should never be a barrier to justice.”

 

  • Delivering a significant injection of funding into the specialist information and advice services that pregnant women and new mothers need to help protect their rights.

 

  • Restoring the real value of statutory maternity, paternity, and related pay, lost as a result of below-inflation uprating since April 2013; and planning a series of annual increases to bring parity with the National Minimum Wage by 2020. It is ludicrous that new parents are expected to get by on just 60 per cent of the NMW, at a time when their outgoings have gone through the roof. And, in the words of one small employer, it is “immoral and damaging to society to force new mothers back into work before they [are] ready.”

With a recent Ipsos MORI survey for Mumsnet suggesting that 60 per cent of the female vote “remains up for grabs”, these are steps that politicians and policy wonks of all hues should be thinking about as they finalise their party manifestos for May 2015.

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Richard Dunstan
Richard is Project Officer at Maternity Action. Follow him @Wonkypolicywonk

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