The Government recently launched a ten week public consultation over plans to extend existing statutory protections available to those who face redundancy whilst on maternity leave.
The intention is to extend redundancy protection to cover not just the maternity leave but also pregnancy and the six-month period immediately after women return to work.
The consultation is part of the Government's package of measures in response to the Taylor Review of modern working practices as set out in the "Good Work Plan" published in December 2018. It follows research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and BEIS, which showed a high level of discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers, including new mothers being forced out of work when they sought to return. The Women and Equalities Select Committee subsequently made a number of recommendations for additional protection.
Currently, women who are pregnant or on maternity leave can still be made redundant in the same way as other employees, provided the reason for their selection is not their pregnancy or maternity and the criteria used for selection are not otherwise discriminatory. In this regard, the UK differs from some of its European neighbours which offer stronger protection. However, women on maternity leave have some enhanced protection under UK law: priority rights to any suitable alternative roles ahead of colleagues who are not on maternity leave. This means that if a woman who is on maternity leave is put at risk and a suitable alternative role exists, the employer must offer the role (not just the right to apply for the role) to her. The alternative vacancy must be both suitable and appropriate for the affected woman. It is this protection that the Government is now proposing to extend to also cover pregnancy and the period of six months after returning from maternity leave. The consultation also considers the impact of extending the protection to other groups taking extended periods of family leave, such as adoption or shared parental leave.
Many will welcome the Government's attempt to recognise the particular impact starting a family has on women's careers beyond the birth and maternity leave period. Some suggest that the existing rules do not sufficiently protect women from being discriminated against in any event so there is limited value in extending these provisions. Others argue that in reality, when an employer makes a decision to put an employee on maternity leave at risk, the chances of a suitable alternative role existing are small, and that only stricter rules actually preventing women being put at risk at all during these periods would be effective to avoid discrimination.