Pregnancy/maternity leave protections to be extended

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Women are protected against discrimination arising as a result of pregnancy, illness/absence related to pregnancy, and taking maternity leave. The period in which they are protected is currently from when a pregnancy begins until the end of maternity leave, or 2 weeks after the end of the pregnancy if they are not entitled to maternity leave. Significantly, employers have an obligation to offer a suitable alternative vacancy where available, which is appropriate and not on substantially less favourable terms, if an employee’s role becomes redundant while she is on maternity leave.

The BEIS has published a consultation today asking for views extending the protected period, enabling women to not only benefit from this protection during the current period, but also 6 months after they return to work. This would allow women further protection in re-establishing themselves within the workplace after an extended period of absence, without fear of less favourable treatment and/or redundancy.  It is also proposed that the right to be offered suitable alternative employment would in redundancy situations also be extended to women during their pregnancy, provided they have notified their employer of that fact, and for a period of 6 months after returning from maternity leave.

It is hoped that this will alleviate the difficulties faced by women returning to the workplace, as seen in research conducted in 2016, which found that 11% felt forced out of the workplace, through dismissal, redundancy, or unfavourable treatment after returning from maternity leave.  These proposed reforms will also have a significant affect on employers undertaking restructurings, as it must ensure it has sufficient records of at risk employees who are pregnancy or have returned from maternity leave, in addition to those currently on maternity leave.

Whether this proposed change will affect attitudes towards pregnancy and maternity leave within the workplace, or delay the result is yet to be seen. It may in fact frontload the problem, with research showing that in 2016, a quarter of employers thought it was reasonable during recruitment to ask about future plans in relation to having children, and whether this would make employers more wary in introducing this added protection, or whether it will do as intended, by clearing up any confusion and making the framework more consistent and easier to understand for all.