9 February 2023

Do 54,000 women a year really lose their jobs because they get pregnant?


As a former Prime Minister grabbed headlines by re-entering the political fray, a new bill breezed through the Commons attracting scant attention and even less opposition.

But we should care about the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill. It provides yet another troubling case study in how influential, self-righteous pressure groups can peddle their agendas based on flimsy data, and encounter little resistance.

A few years ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission conducted interviews with 3,254 mothers. It found that around one in nine reported they were either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant (where others in their workplace were not) or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. ‘If scaled up,’ the study claimed, ‘this could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year’.

The Guardian played its part, allowing the usual suspects to weigh in on what Rosalind Bragg of Maternity Action described as a ‘shocking picture’. It is unacceptable, she added, that ‘54,000 women each year are dismissed or bullied out of their jobs purely because they become pregnant’. A spokesperson from the Royal College of Midwives issued a non-sequitur that nonetheless added to the narrative: ‘Evidence shows that missing antenatal appointments can increase the risk of smaller babies, premature babies, miscarriages and stillbirth’.

So far, so predictable. Now look at the latest House of Commons progress update on the bill, which claims in no uncertain terms that ‘around 54,000 women a year lose their jobs because they’re pregnant… it’s scandalous’. This is how policy is now being decided. Tentative findings become definite, assertions of discrimination, which then become ‘evidence’. A survey of new mothers by the charity Pregnant then Screwed has since upped the ante, finding that ‘30% believed they had experienced discrimination from their employer during the pandemic’.

And before you can point out that protections for pregnant women are already pretty comprehensive, new legislation will be on the statute books preventing employers from making a pregnant woman, or one on maternity leave, redundant from the moment she tells her boss she is expecting until the child is 18 months old.

In 2017/18, the number of pregnancy-related employment tribunal claims was 1,357 – a 56% increase on the previous year, which employment lawyers put down to greater awareness of maternity and paternity rights, combined with an increased willingness to make claims. Vested interests won’t agree, but could the solution not be better understanding of existing regulations, rather than the introduction of new ones?

Since the bill was approved in the Commons on Friday with full government support, it is a question of when, not if, it will become law in England, Wales and Scotland. Politicians – many of whom view the number of acts the Government can pass rather than their efficacy as the sole indicator of success – will insist this will help the tens of thousands of women who are being pushed out of work ‘simply for being pregnant’.

But this is fantasy. For a start, the Maternity and Paternity Leave regulations already stipulate that an employer should not make a woman on maternity leave or a parent on shared parental or adoption leave redundant. They are obliged to offer them a suitable alternative vacancy where one exists, if their job is at risk. And women also have some protection under the Equality Act, which states that an employer cannot discriminate against someone because they are pregnant or on maternity leave. Then there are employment laws which protect people from being dismissed from their job unfairly.

The assumption behind this new legislation seems to be that all women work for large companies. In fact, small firms tend to be big employers of women, yet their hiring practices are usually more informal, with many jobs not advertised. They may well now opt to take on more male employees for fear of discrimination claims if the company needs to go through a redundancy process.

As with so many regulations, the benefits and beneficiaries are obvious. But the downsides – in terms of fewer opportunities for women in their twenties to forties, or lower wages as employers pass on any additional costs – are largely hidden. And does anyone believe that vested interests will look at the expansion of these laws and put their feet up, satisfied their work is done? Already, Pregnant then Screwed are already warning that even if they are not made redundant, many women are put in an untenable position because their employer refuses to grant them part-time or flexible working arrangements. Talk about a slippery slope.

There are also calls to extend the current three-month limit on bringing unfair dismissal claims to six months to encourage more women to go to the tribunal. This might be reasonable, but if the rule is tweaked for pregnant women it would need to be universal. This would likely increase the tribunal workload and cost, while encouraging claims that are spurious or difficult to adjudicate because decision-makers might have moved on, or records been lost.

Of course it is true that pregnant women and new mothers are often at their most vulnerable. Sometimes employers will fall short – but that’s precisely why the current laws exist. At some point the pitfalls of over-regulation will become clear. And it’s unlikely politicians will see it coming any more than Truss did the implosion of her premiership.

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Annabel Denham is Director of Communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.