Baroness Bertin debates involving the Department for Business and Trade during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill

Baroness Bertin Excerpts
Moved by
Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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I begin by thanking the honourable Member for Barnsley Central for all his hard work in taking this Bill through the other place. Thanks to his considerable effort, expertise and enthusiasm, we have a workable Bill which is supported by the Government and all political parties and by key external stakeholders, including the CBI. It was even described as a “group hug” in the other place in Committee. I do not think we do enough political group hugging, so I sincerely hope I can deliver the same joined-up spirit today.

I pay tribute to the officials at the Department for Business and Trade for their excellent work in supporting the Bill and in supporting me. I echo also the honourable Member for Barnsley Central’s sincere thanks to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the TUC—that is not something noble Lords will hear me say often, but I do thank it on this Bill—the Royal College of Midwives, UNISON, Pregnant Then Screwed—which has been a very powerful campaigning group on this issue; I know that many women will be grateful for its efforts—the Fawcett Society and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. All these groups have been instrumental in making this Bill happen.

To give noble Lords some context on this legislation and why it matters, according to figures from a report commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, at least 54,000 women a year get pushed out of the workforce after becoming pregnant. I had to double-check that figure—I thought it must be a typo or the number must span over 10 years, but it does not. That equates to one in nine women either being dismissed, made compulsorily redundant, or being treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job.

Further to that, in 2018 YouGov conducted a survey to understand managers’ attitudes around pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Almost half of employers agreed it was quite reasonable to ask women during the recruitment process whether they have young children. One-third believed that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are generally less interested in their career progression. Four in 10 employers agreed that pregnancy in the workplace put an unnecessary cost burden on them. That was in 2018 but I would be surprised if those attitudes had changed radically, so we still have some way to go on this issue. I think we can all agree that the figure of 54,000 women being pushed out of work does not belong in a progressive and modern society.

Becoming a parent is the most exciting and rewarding, but often the most challenging, thing that a person can do. I am lucky enough—or mad enough, depending on which day you catch me—to have done it three times. But it is also an anxious time, from the minute you find out you are pregnant to the moment you hold your baby—God willing—and during all the months and years that follow. I believe very strongly that no woman should ever have to fear losing her job because she is pregnant or because she has taken her entitled leave.

The current regulations under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations—MAPLE for short, which is how I will refer to them, for the sake of all our sanities—put a woman on maternity leave in a preferential position in a redundancy situation so that she goes to the back of the queue when jobs are being cut. There are parallel regulations, as many noble Lords will be aware, which have the same effect for parents taking adoption leave or shared parental leave.

The point of the Bill is to extend the redundancy protection I have described into the period of pregnancy and for a longer period after the return to work, thus alleviating much of the anxiety around job security that a pregnant woman or a new parent may face. The clauses in the Bill are simple but important. They will give the Secretary of State a new power so that regulations on redundancy can be made during a protected period of pregnancy and an amended power so that regulations on redundancy can be made during or after a period of relevant leave. That relevant leave is currently maternity leave, adoption leave or shared parental leave.

I am very glad that shared parental leave is included in this extended protection. We must get better in this country at encouraging fathers and partners to take up a proportion of their shared leave. Nearly all the evidence points to improved family outcomes, and legislation such as this, although not a silver bullet, helps maintain momentum in that culture shift. I think attitudes have improved in this regard but let us be under no illusions: uptake is still very low. I am sure there are financial reasons and quite understandable financial considerations for that and that is not something we can hope to settle in this debate.

Let us also acknowledge that, in some industries and companies, a father taking a decent chunk of parental leave is still akin to committing career suicide. I think that this macho way of thinking has a big impact on us gaining real equality between the sexes. Big, profitable organisations should be running towards generous shared parental leave schemes. They want their talent pipelines to be stuffed with great women as well as men and this is one way to do it—we know that. Until the burden of responsibility is shared more evenly in those early years, I do not think we will ever really achieve real equality between the sexes in the workforce.

Going back briefly to the technicalities of the Bill, clearly these are delegated powers in the clauses I referred to earlier. Noble Lords, quite rightly, are often concerned that we should be clear about the need for delegated powers and how these will be used. The Bill deals with matters linked to existing delegated powers. To achieve a consistent effect, provisions are therefore drafted in similar terms in the Bill. The powers in the Bill mirror, in so far as it is possible, the approach in the existing MAPLE legislation. These have been on the statute book for some time and are well understood by employers and the legal community. I reassure noble Lords that the Bill is clear that regulations made under the new powers will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and that Parliament will have the opportunity to debate and consider the detail the regulations set out. I am delighted that last night the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report said:

“There is nothing in this private member’s Bill which we would wish to draw to the attention of the House”.

I hope that reassures noble Lords.

Redundancy protection will apply from the point a woman tells her employer she is pregnant and for 18 months after the birth of the child, covering the period of parental leave and a return-to-work period. The 18-month period of redundancy protection means that a mother returning from 12 months of maternity leave will receive six months’ additional protection when she goes back to work. It is a very simple approach, allowing both new parents and their employers to easily understand those requirements and it accommodates parents who make use of shared parental leave which can be taken in discontinuous blocks.

I know that the Government continue to work very constructively with stakeholders who really understand this issue inside out—I want to praise the Government on that—on the finer detail of how it will work and how the legislation will be most effective. Indeed, there are ongoing discussions with the Government on several areas, the most contentious perhaps being the qualifying period. Currently, there is a proposal to include in the regulations a qualifying period of six consecutive weeks of family leave before you are entitled to these redundancy protections. I urge the Government to reach an agreement whereby maternity leave is exempt from that period. Such a threshold could inadvertently leave a new mother, who may be forced to curtail her leave for whatever reason, doubly unprotected and vulnerable. I fully back keeping a qualifying period for shared parental leave; this feels just and reasonable, and encourages a meaningful uptake—why that is so important was discussed earlier.

In conclusion, this Bill is a welcome strengthening of the redundancy protection for pregnant women and parents. Not only will it prevent unscrupulous employers discriminating against pregnant women—as we have seen that they still do, and can do—but it acknowledges that you are not necessarily on a level playing field as soon as you come back from your maternity leave, or your shared parental leave, if you have taken a significant amount. To be put on a level playing field in a round of job cuts is simply not fair when you have come straight back from your leave.

This is a progressive policy, which I am proud to be involved in. I thank all noble Lords in advance of this debate for their contributions. The Bill will make a real difference to people’s lives—to the woman telling her boss, not with trepidation but now with confidence, that she is pregnant, and to the mother returning to work after maternity leave, knowing that her job is safer and more secure. This is a small step, but it has wider significance. It is a statement about the sort of society we are and want to be, one that protects and values parents, and the sort of economy that we are trying to build, one that makes the most of all its talents. I beg to move.

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Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions today. There were numerous contributions, which I take as a positive sign. They were so supportive that I would like to acknowledge each one. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Browne, made a very powerful speech. He told an anecdote about Germany and how culturally different we are. It does not get more high-powered than the Munich Security Conference. Acknowledging that children are part of every element of life is something that we need to get better at in this country. Culture change takes a long time, but legislation can sound the starting gun for that, although this Bill is not going to solve everything. The noble Lord made good points on tribunals as well. I will not comment on that here, but I do hear what he is saying, if I could put it that way.

I say a big thank you to the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I was very grateful for his speech and also for acknowledging that when we have agreement we must agree with each other—and we definitely need to do a bit more group hugging. I think the public want that from us. Where we can agree, we should come together, even if we are on other sides of the fence. He made a very important point, which it is right to acknowledge: some organisations have not been necessarily 100% behind this Bill. It is a very hackneyed phrase, and I hate to use it, but of course if you had a blank sheet of paper maybe you would start again and do things slightly differently. We do not, and we must be careful that we do not let perfection get in the way of good.

The noble Lord, Lord Leong, made that point very well. I had not realised that this was his first outing on the Front Bench, so I feel very honoured to be part of the beginning of this chapter. I very much enjoyed his speech. I thought it was very well made, and I hope to have many more interactions with the noble Lord going forward. Again, I am very grateful to him for his robust defence of the Bill and for acknowledging that some organisations—not many, but some—have pushed back on it.

I also appreciate the point about birth rates falling. Being a parent these days is really quite tough. When I think back to when my mother was raising us, the homework levels now are so much higher, and the pressures that we have to run with as parents. It does not surprise me at all that people are thinking, “D’you know what? I don’t really fancy this”. It is very expensive and the pressures are there. I think it is right to acknowledge that. We must support, not penalise, parents who want to remain in the workplace, particularly mothers. We must double down on that.

Finally, I thank my noble friend Lord Johnson for the Government’s response. It was a very eloquent and thorough reply. The Government have obviously thought long and hard about this subject. We must acknowledge that they are very committed to this issue. We have moved very far forward. On timing, we always want to do these things a lot quicker, but the reality of government and the challenges that the Government face mean that that is not always possible. I think that we should acknowledge the progress that has been made under this Conservative Government. It has been a progressive time in office, and I am proud of that.

My noble friend also talked about the vitality of motherhood in the workplace. No self-respecting company or organisation should think, “How can we get mothers out of the workplace?” What a disgrace. We should be thinking, “How can we get mothers back into the workplace?” They offer so much and their organisations are far richer for them.

My noble friend also said that we were on a journey and that we would build upon it, and I look forward to walking with him on that route. Manifestos have been mentioned. I hope and am certain that the Conservative manifesto will give a very strong and powerful offering to parents. It must, because that is the way to electoral victory. I therefore invite noble Lords to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.