There are approximately 15 million women who are active in the UK labour market at any one time, and in nearly 30% of couples that are not same sex the female is the higher earner. Over a third of the UK's working population is made up of working parents. However, concerns remain that some pregnant women and women taking maternity leave are disadvantaged within the workplace. In order to investigate these concerns the UK government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) jointly commissioned research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The research took account of the views of over 3000 employers and over 3250 women.
Interim findings were published in July 2015. While the findings confirmed that many employers - 84% - recognised the value and importance of supporting women through pregnancy and their return from maternity leave many incidences of discrimination and poor treatment were reported with 77% of mothers reporting negative experiences. In light of this, the EHRC undertook to make recommendations to the UK Government. Both the EHRC recommendations and the UK Government response were published on 22 March 2016.
The EHRC made six recommendations for action:-
The development of a joint communication campaign highlighting the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent and experience of women with children, and to demonstrate creative approaches to attracting, developing and retaining women in the workforce. They also recommend investigating the feasibility of an insurance scheme to support small and medium sized employers with costs of maternity cover and enhanced maternity pay.
The Government accepts both these recommendations in principle but confirmed the provision of an insurance policy would be a commercial decision in which the Government would not intervene.
Making changes to prevent employers from asking job applicants about pregnancy, motherhood or plans to have children. The Government response is that it believes this is an awareness issue and there is no need for additional legislation.
Reviewing the availability and ease of access to employment advice services and removing any barriers to them. The Government accepted this recommendation and also accepted in principle recommendations to use existing channels to deliver information to employers and to create a single comprehensive website for employers and individuals.
Recommendations to the Health and Safety Executive for improving guidance and communication with employers over carrying out risk assessments, addressing research findings in particular sectors and occupational groups and raising awareness of health and safety obligations. The Government accepted these recommendations and confirmed the HSE would take them forward.
Improving access to justice for women experiencing pregnancy or maternity discrimination by making changes to the tribunal fees system and considering increasing the time limit for claims from three to six months for cases involving pregnancy and maternity rights. Both these recommendations have been rejected by the Government.
Finally, the Government has accepted recommendations on monitoring progress. This includes ensuring questions about pregnancy and maternity discrimination are included in employer and employee surveys, reporting on outcomes and keeping under consideration what further research or action may be needed. ACAS is also to continue to publish data on early conciliation cases involving pregnancy and maternity rights.
Whilst the UK Government responses covers England, Wales and Scotland the EHRC has separately made recommendations to the Scottish and Welsh governments who will respond separately. The Scottish Government was reported in February as having pledged to set up a working group to draw up guidelines for employers on recruitment, retention and development of pregnant workers although the response to the EHRC recommendations is still awaited.