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6 March 2016

This Mothering Sunday, hope for a change of government

The Conservatives are letting down mothers - in the workplace and out of it.

By kate green

As we celebrate and honour our mums today, on Mothering Sunday, let’s also remember the mothers up and down the country worried that they will lose their jobs, or be treated unfairly by their boss because of maternity discrimination.

Figures from the government’s own research estimate that 54,000 women were forced out of work in 2015 because they were pregnant. That’s almost double the number compared to 2005 when a similar study was conducted.

The charity Maternity Action reports that 240,000 pregnant women and new mothers each year report unsatisfactory health and safety risk management at work, and 50,000 are discouraged from attending their antenatal appointments by their employer.

Shockingly, it is still not illegal to ask a woman about her plans to have children during a job interview; in fact 25 per cent of employers believe this to be acceptable.

We need to call time on these dismaying practices. Respecting maternity rights isn’t just good for mothers, it’s good for our society, our children, and for us all. When maternal and paternal rights are respected, we reduce gender inequality, improve the health of women and children, and enable families to thrive.

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Yet despite calls from Labour and from charities that support new mums, the Tory government’s lack of action in the face of the statistics has been staggering. Last July a joint report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) outlined the scale of maternity discrimination. Despite the length of time that has passed since the publication of that report, nothing has happened since then. 

Further research by the EHRC, which would have made recommendations for action to protect new mums, was due to be published months ago but has been delayed again and again by ministers. MPs from across the House are up in arms, with the Tory chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller, writing to BIS Minister Sajid Javid, asking the reasons for the continued delays. Miller complains that the work of the cross-party committee has had to be completely rearranged because the government has been dragging its feet. Meanwhile maternity discrimination continues.

But it’s not just lack of action from the government that has concerned politicians – and new mothers. Government policy has actively made things worse.

In 2013 the Conservative-led government introduced fees to take a discrimination case to tribunal. If a woman wants to challenge her employer on the grounds of maternity discrimination, it will now cost her up to £1,200. Since the introduction of tribunal fees, there has been a 77 per cent decrease in the number of discrimination claims coming forward. There can be no doubt that the fee is deterring mothers from pursuing their case. Aisha, who experienced maternity discrimination in her workplace, told me, ‘I couldn’t have afforded the £1,200 fee to take my employer to an employment tribunal – for me that option was out of the question’.

The government has promised a review into the impact of the introduction of tribunal fees – but again we have no idea when the review will be complete or published. So a small number of unscrupulous employers are being given the green light to continue to treat pregnant women in a discriminatory and unsafe way in the workplace – knowing that women cannot afford to take action against them.

Meanwhile, Tory divisions on the issue of Britain’s place in the EU put the rights and entitlements of mothers on the line. European Union law underpins UK  maternity (and paternity) rights, such as the right to return to work after maternity leave, the right to sick leave, and time off for urgent family reasons. Tories pressing for us to leave the EU threaten those protections.

All this could be avoided if the government had a proper strategy in place to support new mothers and working parents. I’m proud of the progress achieved under Labour: we extended maternity leave, introduced paternity leave, invested in Sure Start, and introduced a right to request flexible working. Tax credits helped parents to make work pay, and the introduction of free and affordable childcare helped them to balance work and parenting.

But under the Tories, progress has shifted into reverse. Their legacy will be one of soaring maternity discrimination and injustice to parents.  As we think of and thank our mothers today, it is high time for ministers to put mums first.