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Extra protection for employees on maternity leave

29 January 2019

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced a consultation on 25 January 2019 aimed at extending the protection afforded to women in relation to maternity leave and redundancy.

Specifically, the Government wishes to seek views on a proposal that the current protection against redundancy for women on maternity leave be extended so that it applies for six months following the date of return to work.

At present, there is a level of enhanced protection from dismissal for redundancy for women who are absent on maternity leave which takes the form of an obligation on the part of the employer to offer any suitable alternative vacancy it may have to a woman whose job becomes redundant while she is on maternity leave. This has the effect of allowing the woman to ‘queue jump’ other possible candidates for a vacancy during a redundancy exercise. The protection ceases as soon as the woman returns to work.

The Government is now considering extending the period in which maternity leavers are protected, for a period of six months after return from maternity leave. BEIS also seeks views on whether this protection should also apply to those who take time off for adoption or shared parental leave.

Impact

Publication of earning levels in recent years under ‘gender pay gap’ legislation continues to show that the most highly paid roles are more commonly held by men than women. Such statistics cannot show whether this reflects genuine choices made by women in terms of their work/life balance during the years when the children are young, or whether other factors are at play, including women being dismissed from their jobs when they take maternity leave, under the guise of redundancy.

Reorganisation of roles while an individual is on maternity leave or at the point of return is not unusual, and while this may reflect changes that the business needs which occur during the period of leave, the consultation paper notes that the Women and Equalities Select Committee did find evidence of new mothers being forced out of work when they seek to return.

An additional period of protection might therefore be an effective means of promoting the participation of returning mothers in the workforce.

The consultation is open until 5 April and includes questions relating to the way in which any such right might be enforced, noting that in some European jurisdictions, consent from Government or a public authority is required to dismiss a woman during pregnancy and for a period following birth.

The proposal made is not as draconian as that, suggesting only an extension of the period in which an employee who takes maternity leave has priority for alternative vacancies.

You can see the consultation paper here.

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