UK proposes enhanced protections for pregnant staff and new parents

Out-Law News | 28 Jan 2019 | 9:56 am | 2 min. read

Legal protections from redundancy for new mothers and staff on maternity leave could be extended under proposals put forward for consultation by the UK government.

The 1999 Maternity and Parental Leave etc Regulations state that a woman on maternity leave who is selected for redundancy must be given priority over other employees at risk of redundancy when suitable alternative employment is offered. The government has proposed extending this right to staff on other types of parental leave, women who have returned from maternity leave in the previous six months and those who have told their employer that they are pregnant.

"Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is illegal, but some new mothers still find unacceptable attitudes on their return to work which effectively forces them out of their jobs," said business minister Kelly Tolhurst. "We are looking at ways to further protect new parents by giving them time to re-establish themselves in the workplace and show the value they bring to their employers."

An estimated 54,000 women may lose their jobs every year due to pregnancy or maternity, according to research commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The same research found that one in nine women had been dismissed or made redundant when they returned to work after having a child, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job.

The consultation, which closes on 5 April, forms part of the government's response to the Taylor Review of modern working practices as well as a 2017 report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee (WEC). In it, the government explains the current law on redundancy protection for pregnant women and new parents, and seeks views on whether and how the law should be extended.

The government's proposal is to extend the protections which currently apply to the period of maternity leave to cover the period of pregnancy and an additional six months after maternity leave ends. It is also seeking views on whether the same protections should be extended to parents returning from adoption leave or shared parental leave, whether new mothers or new fathers.

The consultation also sets out what the government has done to raise awareness of maternity-related employment rights and obligations since the publication of the BEIS/EHRC research in 2016, including updating the relevant forms and the issuing of new Acas guidance. It has asked respondents how effective these initiatives have been, and whether and how the existing guidance should be improved.

The government had previously rejected a recommendation by the WEC to increase the time limit for bringing a pregnancy or maternity discrimination case before the employment tribunal from the standard three months to six months, noting that the tribunal already has the power to extend the time limit on a case by case basis where it is 'just and equitable' to do so. The government does, however, intend to consult more widely on appropriate time limits for claims relating to discrimination, harassment and victimisation, according to the consultation. 

Employment law expert Susannah Donaldson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said: "Whilst the 'just and equitable' test is far easier to satisfy than the 'reasonably practicable' test for unfair dismissal claims, it still presents an additional hurdle which parents would have to overcome to procced with an employment tribunal claim."

"Many parents are already deterred from initiating employment tribunal proceedings as it would mean more stress during a time when they are already experiencing difficult life changes," she said. "Many believe that an extension of the time limit would give them additional time to adapt to the lifestyle changes they are facing and reflect on their options."