Dan Jarvis – 2022 Speech on the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill

The speech made by Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, in the House of Commons on 21 October 2022.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I begin by acknowledging that the House was originally due consider the Bill on Friday 9 September. I was looking over my speech the day before when I learned, with the greatest sadness, that Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had passed away. I am grateful that we can proceed with Second Reading today.

I welcome the new Minister to his post. I also thank the previous Ministers—the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—for their support for the Bill at an early stage. They were both incredibly helpful and supportive and I am grateful to them.

I pay tribute to the officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for their excellent work in supporting the Bill. I also say a big “thank you” to the Clerks of the House, who have done excellent work, as they always do, to ensure that we can proceed with Second Reading today. I put on record my sincere gratitude to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the TUC, the Royal College of Midwives, my union Unison, Maternity Action, Pregnant Then Screwed, The Fawcett Society and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, all of which have offered invaluable support to the process over the last few months.

There is no more important or gratifying experience than raising a family. Children provide hope for the future and bring joy to our lives, although I can say as a parent, as I am sure other hon. Members will, that on occasion that has been tested to the full in my household—but that is teenagers. Despite its importance, however, raising a family has never been more challenging. The scarcity of affordable housing, sky-high childcare costs and now soaring inflation make the decision to start or grow a family simply unaffordable for many. This Bill seeks to alleviate some of that hardship by increasing security in the workplace for pregnant women and new parents by extending redundancy protections. I am proud to be bringing forward the Bill in the House today.

The current safeguards afforded under the Equality Act 2010 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999—the MAPLE regulations—are not being applied correctly, and are sometimes not being observed at all. As it stands under the law, a woman on maternity leave is entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy if her role is at risk, but a lack of clarity coupled with poor compliance means that new mums are often first rather than last to be shown the door. The sheer scale of the problem makes the case for reform irrefutable.

Each year, there are somewhere in the region of half a million pregnant women in the workplace. A Human Rights Commission survey, commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and published in 2016, found that a majority—three in four—experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination, while some 54,000 women a year lose their job just for getting pregnant. A few months on from that survey, the Women and Equalities Committee, then chaired by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), advocated for a comprehensive ban on redundancies. In response to her inquiry’s report, the Government stated that the situation was “clearly unacceptable”.

Two years on, the Government launched a consultation, and in reply they pledged to extend existing protections to pregnancy and a period of six months following a return to work. The 2019 Queen’s Speech was set to deliver these commitments through an employment Bill, but that was not brought forward, and then the pandemic hit. As with everything, covid exposed and amplified every pre-existing inequality and prejudice, and expectant and new parents in the workplace were not an exception.

Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers were more likely than fathers to have lost their job or to have quit during lockdown. The Office for National Statistics reported that parents were twice as likely to have been furloughed compared with workers without children. A TUC survey revealed a significant number of pregnant women and new mums had experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work—findings backed up by two damning reports published by the Petitions Committee.

Behind those numbers are scores of soon-to-be mums and new parents fighting to keep their jobs, struggling to support a young family and now doing so against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis. This debate is therefore not over the level of injustice—we know what that is—but about how we can correct it.

Let me explain to the House what the Bill will do. Clause 1 provides a new power to enable provision to be made by regulations about protection from redundancy during and after pregnancy. Clause 2 amends existing powers to make regulations to enable protection from redundancy on return to work from maternity, adoption or shared parental leave.

Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech on his excellent Bill. Yes, this is about pregnant women, but it is also about family leave, which is superb news. Could he elaborate a little more on that, please?

Dan Jarvis

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for her question. As I said earlier, she was incredibly helpful at the early stages of the Bill, and she is absolutely right to make that point. The benefit of the Bill will be felt across hundreds of thousands of households and families right across the country. Although the focus of my remarks to date has been on the impact it will have on women who are pregnant and new mums, the reality is that the benefits of the Bill extend right across the family unit. We know the official numbers are that 54,000 women lose their jobs every single year just because they are pregnant. As we can all imagine, that has a devastating impact on them, but also of course on the wider family unit. The hon. Member raises a very important question, and I completely agree with what she said.

I know there are some right hon. and hon. Members here today, and certainly a number of people and campaigners watching the debate, who would like—and this policy was previously advocated by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke—an outright ban on redundancies, as we have seen implemented in Germany. Not everybody will necessarily be familiar with the German model, so let me briefly explain it.

There are five pillars of the Maternity Protection Act that underwrite the ban in Germany. First, protection from redundancy begins the moment the employer knows that the employee is pregnant. Secondly, if an employer makes a pregnant worker redundant not knowing they are pregnant but then this information is disclosed, they must be reinstated and the protections apply. Thirdly, the local health authority must review each request from an employer to make a pregnant worker or a new mother redundant. This usually takes about three weeks in practice, and while this review takes place the pregnant woman will remain in employment. Fourthly, an employer cannot dismiss a pregnant worker or a new mother without permission from the health authority. Lastly, protections for mothers on maternity and parental leave extend to four months after it has been taken. That also extends to women who, very sadly, have experienced a miscarriage.

Although it may not be wholly translatable to the British system, there is little doubt over confusion and compliance under those rules. The Government have decided that, for the moment, they do not want to apply similar regulations here.

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

I want to express enthusiastic support for the Bill. It will plug an important gap in protection. Looking back at the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), we want to avoid a situation where, if there was a complete ban on all redundancies under any circumstances, that could mean that employers were having to retain employees when there was no longer work for them to do. The Bill is a reasonable compromise, as it is perhaps more difficult to take forward the previous proposals of my right hon. Friend.

Dan Jarvis

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She makes a helpful contribution. As she and other right hon. and hon. Members will understand, including the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, there are different views about this matter. In the end we have arrived at a reasonable and sensible compromise. The debate on that particular issue will continue, and if the Bill is successful there will be a further opportunity to debate such matters in Committee.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way. I have never heard of the German proposals before, and I really like them. I think they are flipping good, if I can say that, and it makes sense that we go some of the way down that road.

Dan Jarvis

I am grateful to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for his intervention. I had not expected us to get into a debate today about what is going on in Germany, but he raises a valuable point. It is always important to look at how things work in different countries. The German model has been looked at closely, and a number of campaign organisations are strongly supportive of it. I have had those conversations with Ministers and a range of organisations, and there is merit in the German model, which, for the record, is my preference. I understand, however, the concerns that have been raised, and I think the Bill has currently got to the right place. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support today.

We are now six years on from the shocking findings by the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the industrial scale discrimination that expectant and new mums face at work. This is a timely opportunity to make progress. I confess that I was taken aback by the level of discrimination faced by pregnant women in the workplace. Perhaps I had made an assumption that such practices had been consigned to history, but that is not the case, and as I said, 54,000 women are directly affected as a consequence, with the wider impact that will have on their families.

Lee Anderson (Ashfield) (Con)

This is an excellent debate, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the Bill. He suggested that more than 50,000 women in this country lose their jobs as a result of being pregnant, which has a terrific impact on family and social welfare. Are employers also missing a trick? They are losing their most valuable resource—those women—who can provide fantastic work in the workplace.

Dan Jarvis

The hon. Member makes an excellent point. He is absolutely right that some employers are missing a trick here. As I said, I did not expect to get into a debate about Germany, but he makes an interesting point. There are so many amazing examples of extraordinary women who can excel at what they do—of course there are—so it seems incredibly strange that employers would want to discriminate against women in such a way.

I am sure the hon. Member will agree that that says something about the nature of our society. All of us recognise the importance of children and families—they are the bedrock and foundation of our society—so it cannot be right that women are treated in such a way and on this scale. That must be consigned to the past. We must move forward, and the Bill provides a really good opportunity to do that. I would be the first to admit that the Bill is not a panacea, but it is a good step in the right direction and I am grateful for the support offered for it.

Having made some remarks about the example that I referenced and the enforcement mechanism used in Germany, I am sure the Minister agrees that there is merit in us continuing to work closely together through the Bill’s passage to look at how, on a cross-party basis, we can seek to address some of the current safeguards’ shortcomings, namely around the confusion and compliance that I referred to.

On the former, now is the time to end the inconsistency of when and how regulation 10 of the MAPLE regulations is applied. For instance, when a firm is reducing its number of roles, many employers see their obligations to women on maternity leave as a two-stage process, initially by forcing them to compete for their job against colleagues and only then seeking to find them suitable alternative vacancies if they are unsuccessful in retaining their role. That is deeply unfair. Women on maternity leave are at a massive disadvantage, as they might have been out of the workplace for months—obviously, they have been focused on caring for their newborn child. It is also highly irrational. If a new mum has been selected for redundancy, there is little or no chance of their being offered a suitable alternative vacancy, because they will have been filled. As it stands, many workers do not know their rights under the existing regulations, businesses apply them in different ways, and even case law is conflicting.

Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)

I have been reflecting on what the hon. Member has been saying about his very good Bill, which may fill some of the gaps that we have been talking about. I also heard what he said about the evolution of society, and hopefully that—as well as his Bill—will go some way towards helping. My employer before I was elected introduced parental leave allowing both parents to take six months of paid leave. I accept that not every employer can do that, but when we get to the place where, regardless of a person’s gender and their parenting role, they are entitled to rights, employers may stop looking at women as the first place to go when making people redundant. It would no longer be an easy choice for them.

Dan Jarvis

The hon. Lady raises a really helpful point, following the one made by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). The nature of the Bill, and what we seek to achieve through its passage, speaks to the decency that I think we all want to see in our society. In the Bill, we have something in front of the House that is good for pregnant mums, good for new mums and good for families. It is also good for business, as it is in businesses’ own interest to be responsible employers and to make the most of their employees.

I very much hope that the Bill will get support from across the House. I sense that it will, and I am encouraged by that. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the critique of the Bill would be and whether any right hon. or hon. Members would have issues or problems with it. I have tried as much as I possibly can to get around as many hon. Members as possible and have those conversations, but nobody has been able to say that they think there is anything wrong with the Bill. The only debate is around the extent of its ambition and whether the protections could be greater and longer. That is potentially a point of debate, but I hope that we now have the basis of a Bill that all decent right hon. and hon. Members will be able to support—fingers crossed.

Theresa Villiers

An important potential positive consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill and further protection for women in the workplace is helping us to tackle our productivity problem in this country. If we can monopolise the vast resource of women in the workplace, including pregnant women and new mums, it will make us a more competitive nation, help us to plug skills gaps and make us more productive, which ultimately will raise living standards.

Dan Jarvis

The right hon. Lady’s point is spot on and she has made it very eloquently. I can see there is consensus. She is right that for a very long time we have grappled with the productivity challenge, and we are still grappling with it. This is part of how we can seek to address the complicated and difficult productivity challenge that we all know we face as a country. I am grateful to her for that useful intervention.

It would be helpful at this point to inject some real-life experiences into the debate so that the House can better understand what this Bill, if successful, might mean for women in the workplace. I am in receipt of a number of real-life cases of women who have suffered injustice simply because they were pregnant. There are many, and I must say some of them are genuinely shocking.

Emily got in touch with me a few weeks ago. She was made redundant from her job more than halfway through her pregnancy and just days before she would have qualified for statutory maternity pay. She is now attempting to appeal the decision on the grounds of pregnancy discrimination and is feeling targeted not only for being pregnant, but for working part time. Her company told Emily it would be making several people redundant, but instead it laid only her off. It did not follow a fair process and she was not offered any alternative employment. Stories such as Emily’s form part of the wider issues surrounding the inconsistent implementation of regulation 10.

Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

I welcome this Bill. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is so important because many women are putting off having babies until later in life? When I had my first child at 35, the average age in the Chelsea and Westminster hospital was 39. That means women are further on in their careers, and a Bill of this type will support women who are further into their careers as well as those who may be at the beginning.

Dan Jarvis

That is an excellent point that has attracted support from right across the Chamber. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must make sure that women are making decisions about their professional careers without having to weigh up all sorts of factors of unfairness. There must be a level playing field and we must make sure that women are not disadvantaged in the workplace, so I completely agree with her and very much hope this Bill will go some way to achieving that ambition.

I was referring to Emily, whose story highlights the need for consistency and the devastating consequences of what can happen when regulation 10 is not applied correctly. Confusion should never be an excuse for discrimination in the workplace. I have been working closely with the TUC and Unison on the Bill, along with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has been incredibly helpful. It has offered to inform all its 160,000 members of the changes that the Bill will introduce, if it is successful. Will the Minister say how, if the Bill is successful, he plans to communicate the changes to workers and how he will clarify to employers their what their legal obligations will be?

On compliance, some firms simply do not offer an alternative role by falsely claiming that one does not exist. Others engineer situations to force new mums out the door. When a business flouts the rules, the onus is on the woman—who, remember, is on maternity leave—to take the matter to an employment tribunal. That highly stressful and costly decision must be made within three months. However, the 2016 findings showed that less than 1% of women lodged a complaint with an employment tribunal.

When we look into that worryingly low statistic, it is painfully obvious why the figure is so small. The scale of the challenge that such women face is almost insurmountable. Sarah, for example, was made redundant by e-mail six months into her pregnancy. Not wanting to be saddled with a gruelling legal battle during the final months of her pregnancy, she decided against taking legal action at that point. After her baby was born, she sought legal advice, only to be told that she no longer had a case because she had not raised her unfair dismissal within the three-month window. She told me that she never realised how vulnerable pregnant women are until it happened to her.

There is also Natasha: after telling her employer that she was pregnant during the pandemic, she was made redundant while other members of her team stayed on. Shortly after, Natasha suffered the heartbreak of a miscarriage. She lost her baby and she lost her job. I know that many across the House have experienced the pain and trauma of a miscarriage and know only too well its profound and devastating impact.

Lee Anderson

Those are shocking stories; I cannot believe that is happening in this day and age. Does the hon. Member think that some women are perhaps living in fear when they fall pregnant, and that some ladies’ fear of losing their job may lead to them doing the unthinkable, which is to have an abortion?

Dan Jarvis

I think all of us can completely agree that that is not the kind of society in which we want to live. We should value people who do the right thing and step forward to enter the workplace. Collectively, we all have a responsibility to put in place legislation that will provide protections to ensure that people are not treated in that way.

To go back to the hon. Member’s previous point, there is a big responsibility on business. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of the business community are sensible, decent employers. They want to do the right thing. As he said, it is in their interest to do the right thing, value their staff and invest in their workforce—not least a cohort of the workforce that, in every respect, are effective and efficient, to go back to the point about productivity. We have an opportunity to take a step forward today. As I said, this is not a panacea. There is a debate about whether we should go further and be more ambitious, but this is a good step in the right direction and I very much hope that we take it.

Bob Stewart

I thank the hon. Gentleman—my friend—for giving way. It seems to me that in the Bill Committee, we could put in a clause that makes it incumbent on employers to give a sheet of paper to women who are packing up their job because they are pregnant stating what their rights are. That might already be in the Bill—I do not know—but it seems to make sense and that would make it clear to women leaving their jobs exactly what their rights are.

Dan Jarvis

That is an excellent suggestion. The right hon. Member mentioned the Bill Committee. If the Bill is successful in its passage today, we will look for Members to sit on the Committee. I have a form here that I can perhaps give to him—I would be incredibly grateful.

He will remember the expression, “Never volunteer for anything,” even better than I do, but in good faith he may have just volunteered to serve on the Bill Committee. Fingers crossed and touch wood, if we get to that point I will be knocking on his door with the form.

I was making the point about employment tribunals and about Natasha. When she finally felt able to take her employer to a tribunal, she was told—[Interruption.] That is the office of the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) calling to make sure they have the date of the Bill Committee in his diary—[Laughter.] Natasha was told that it was too late and that she should have applied within the three-month window. Extending the time limit to bring forward a claim to six months was supported by every single stakeholder I engaged with. That is an important point.

Nickie Aiken

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. What has shocked me in the work I have been doing on my own private Member’s Bill on employment rights for those undertaking fertility treatment is that it is not just small and medium businesses that can have questionable policies on pregnant women or women who are trying to get pregnant, but even the larger ones, including some of the biggest businesses in the country and even major banks. I have been appalled by some of the stories that I have heard from women who have had to take their employer to a tribunal. Does he agree that, through his Bill and my Bill—which will come to the Chamber soon—it is important to give women confidence that their job is secure when they are pregnant or trying to get pregnant?

Dan Jarvis

I agree with the hon. Lady’s excellent point, to the extent that I wonder whether she might also be available to sit on the Bill Committee. If we are successful today, I may be knocking on her door. There is an absolute responsibility on business to look at their practices and ensure that they are doing the right thing. My overwhelming experience of the business community is that that is what they want to do, but it is clearly not happening everywhere. For all businesses and companies, particularly the larger ones that she referenced, I hope that their minds will be focused on the issue as part of this process.

Legislation and direction from national Government is an important element, but some of it is cultural. It is about leadership in the business community and senior management looking at their own organisations and satisfying themselves that they are doing the right thing. As parliamentarians, we interact regularly with the business community, and I hope that we will have the conversations with senior business leaders in the weeks and months to come. I hope that those conversations will be well received by business. I am grateful for her intervention and hope to see her in Committee.

I was just making the point about the support that I have encountered for expanding the time limit. It is widely supported by stakeholders and that reform has also been advocated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Women and Equalities Committee, the Petitions Committee and the Law Commission. The Government have acknowledged the problem and I have had good conversations about it, but so far they have not made a commitment. I hope that will be a further point of debate, because advising women to make an out-of-time application will not cut it.

I asked the Ministry of Justice how many exceptions had been granted, and in a written answer it said that it did not have that information—I suspect it is very few. Indeed, I have had anecdotal accounts of law firms refusing to represent women if their claim has not been lodged within the current limit, as judges often do not use their discretion. Improving access to justice is an important part of this issue.

Bad employers must know that there will be consequences to their discriminatory treatment. I would be grateful if the Minister would look at when the Government are planning to implement the Law Commission’s April 2020 recommendations and extend the time limit for all employment tribunal claims to six months.

I said earlier that there is no more important job than raising a family. It seems only fair that no one should be penalised for doing so by losing their job. I also said that three in four pregnant women in the workplace experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and that 54,000 women a year lose their job just for getting pregnant. We have had a good debate about this. By any metric, ensuring that women are treated decently and fairly should be a foundation of a civilised society, rather than just an aspiration. If we are serious about tackling discrimination in the workplace, providing parity and equality and ensuring that employers fulfil their obligation, we need laws to support that ambition that are fit for the 21st century and the modern workplace. The Bill will not fix everything, but if it is passed, it will be an important step towards providing working families with more security and dignity in the workplace, which they both need and deserve.

Let me say, once again, how grateful I am to all those who have offered support and to all right hon. and hon. Members present. I very much hope that the Bill will have support from the Government and all parties, and I commend it to the House.