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‘Employers are breaking the law’: Attorney General calls for culture change on maternity rights

The Attorney General has called for a culture change around maternity rights, saying too many employers are breaching employment rules.

Suella Braverman, who last year became the first ever cabinet minister to take maternity leave, said: “Unfortunately, employers are breaking the law, and we do need to change that culture. We do need to ensure that more employers provide support to women in the workplace.”

In an exclusive interview to mark Mothering Sunday, she told Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby it was “pretty surreal” to call the prime minister and tell him she was pregnant and wanted to take maternity leave.

Mrs Braverman said she was “daunted” by the prospect of making the call, but the prime minister’s response was to say it was “great news” and that she should “take whatever time(she) needs”, “we’ll sort it out.”

But for the Attorney General to take up the prime minister’s encouragement to go on paid maternity leave, a law had to be rushed through Parliament.

The ‘Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act’ was passed into law in March last year – had it not, she would have had to resign from the government.

‘This hadn’t happened before at cabinet level – I would have had to resign’

“I started working with the civil service and my officials in the Attorney General’s office to start preparing to see what would need to be done. And we quickly discovered that this hadn’t happened before at cabinet level,” she told Sky News.

“As a result, there was no provision and I would have had to resign if I wanted to have the baby and take some time off to spend with her”.

“When we discovered that, when the prime minister discovered that, we were all pretty horrified. And that’s what led to passing a new act of Parliament to rectify that anomaly.”

‘I was crying all the time’ after being looked over for a promotion after maternity leave

But other mothers and campaigners argue there are many such anomalies and agree with the Attorney General that laws around maternity leave need to change to prevent discrimination.

Jodie Sims had her first child eight years ago. Weeks before she returned from maternity leave, the person covering her role was promoted – without the new opening first being offered to Jodie.

She told Sky News she felt isolated but lacked the energy – and money – to fight a potentially protracted legal battle. Instead, she eventually resigned.

“I didn’t have the emotional strength at that time,” Jodie said. “I wish I pushed against them. Now there’s a bit more distance, and I’ve got a bit more fire in me. I didn’t have it in me then. I was crying all the time. I just had to let it go.”

“There was a cultural change as well, in that as part of my job we used to attend music awards and sort of go to live music events – I wasn’t really included in those anymore.”

“There was a particular one, and when I said ‘oh I’d have quite liked to have gone to that actually’ and they just said ‘oh we just presumed you wouldn’t have been able to because of childcare’, so immediately I was being excluded from things.”

Quarter of pregnant women experienced discrimination during pandemic

Government data shows that more than 50,000 women a year feel they have to leave their jobs while pregnant, and 1 in 20 a year are made redundant.

The TUC found that a quarter of pregnant women or new mothers experienced discrimination during the pandemic, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough.

Current laws do offer pregnant women, or women on maternity, some protection from redundancy. ​​Under Regulation 10 of the Maternity and Paternity Leave Regulations 1999, a woman on maternity leave is “entitled to be offered” a “suitable” vacancy where one is available, as soon as her job is at risk of redundancy.

The intention is to prioritise women on maternity leave over other people at risk of redundancy. But charities say some employers breach the law because they know it requires a full employment tribunal to challenge their actions – a route few women take up, having either just given birth or been away from the workplace for up to a year.

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According to research previously carried out by the Department for Business and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, fewer than 1% of women subject to maternity discrimination seek remedy at a tribunal.

The government has committed to extending the existing rules from three months to six months after a woman returns to work to help tackle discrimination over a longer period.

‘I want to see women protected from being redundant’ after maternity leave

But Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, Maria Miller, is behind a private member’s bill currently going through Parliament which calls for stronger job protections for new mothers and pregnant women.

She believes there should be a wider ban on making pregnant or new mothers redundant to take the legal onus and responsibility off the women themselves.

“At the moment women have to go to a tribunal within three months of the redundancy happening, of the discrimination happening. If you’re a pregnant Mum, just had a new baby, the idea of doing that – really it’s not a priority”, she said.

“The government has already announced they will increase the time length to six months – but simply giving people more time to go to a system that doesn’t work for them, isn’t going to solve the problem. I want to see women protected from being made redundant in the first place.”

However, ministers believe a culture change is more likely to be embraced by employers if there is a more flexible set of requirements for an extended period, rather than a less flexible for a shorter time.



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