Maternity Discrimination: 14th July 2016

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) not only for securing this debate, along with other hon. Members, ​but for being the only man who has taken part. It is perhaps a pity that more men have not even attended this debate and listened to the wise words of so many other hon. Members, all of whom happen to be women. Let us be honest: it is very difficult to stand and talk about these issues, because as we know it is invariably the case that women are remarkable—far more remarkable than men. We have the most amazing ability to multi-task. Incredibly, we are often the more courageous and the more relaxed, and the better warriors in our lives, and I apologise to any man who takes offence at that.

We are quite remarkable because we produce children, and yet, having produced children, we have this incredible ability to carry on as though nothing else was happening in our lives when we are either carrying those children, because we are pregnant, or when we go on to give birth. I do not want in any way to lessen those women who, by choice or just by bad fortune—whatever it may be—do not experience what I thought was the hugely enjoyable experience of being pregnant. That might place me as a very odd person, but I thought it was great. I do not talk about these things normally, because it is always dangerous to raise people’s expectations. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has enjoyed her pregnancy and I can assure her mother that she looks absolutely brilliant. She is at one of the best stages—when we seem to be full of energy and we look fabulous. Not all women have that experience.

We have heard stories about women who suffer from often terrible bouts of sickness—the Duchess of Cambridge was extremely poorly in the early stages of her pregnancy—and there are no excuses for employers not to know, understand and take that into account. Being pregnant is not an illness; we do just get on with it, which is another mark of how brilliant we are as women. But for some women, it is not a breeze, and it is not right or fair of employers in any way to discriminate against them and not to understand that.

I am horrified to hear that in this day and age there are still employers who would have any problem—it is not so much about not allowing them—with a woman who needs to go to the clinic on a regular basis. It is not acceptable. If someone had hurt their foot or their arm and had to go and have their cast off or their stitches out, nobody would say to them, “Oh, it’s not really very convenient.” There should be no discrimination at all, including no discrimination when the women have had their babies. I have gone completely away from my prepared speech, which is not unusual.

Alison Thewliss
I thank the Minister very much for the points she is making. For women who are diabetic or are having a particularly difficult pregnancy after a previous pregnancy loss, does she accept that they need those hospital appointments very dearly? They should be encouraged to go to them and nothing should stand in their way.

Anna Soubry
Absolutely. Let us be quite scary about this: as a society, we need people to have children. That is not because they bring us huge amounts of pleasure and joy, which is almost impossible to articulate. Again, I do not like to talk about that because not everybody has the sort of experiences, especially with babies, that some of us do. A lot of people suffer with postnatal depression and a lot of people do not find that they ​immediately fall in love with this wonderful bundle and so on, so I think it is really important that we do not talk too much about that, apart from privately, when we can discuss these things. However, we need people to have children—not, as I say, just because it brings great pleasure, especially when it comes out of a loving relationship, and what could be greater and more wonderful than that? We need to have babies as a society because we need the workers and contributors of the future, especially as we are all getting older. That is putting it in hard, callous economic terms, but that is the reality. It behoves us as a society—that includes business and employers—to do the right thing. They should be grateful and happy when somebody in their workforce becomes pregnant—not only to share their pleasure and joy, but for the fact that for society this is a good and beneficial thing. If we can persuade employers to understand the huge wider benefits, it might be part of that improvement in the attitude that we clearly need to see.

In the excellent speeches and contributions we have heard, I do not think anybody mentioned that we need to make it clear that good childcare provision is essential to making mums and dads happy. I am delighted that this Government have committed to providing 30 hours of free childcare for working families and that we provide up to 85% of childcare costs for people on lower incomes and universal credit. We are investing more than £5 billion a year in early education and childcare, which will increase to more than £6 billion in 2019-20. Those are important statistics to put on the record. None the less, we can always do better—that is the reality.

Until we get really good free childcare that every woman and every father can access, it will not make the huge improvements we need. It makes a huge difference, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will discover, if people know that they have rock-solid childcare. There is nothing worse than being at work and having that awful sinking feeling of, “Oh goodness! I’ve got to go off to the childminder”—or the nursery, or wherever—“and pick the children up.” That does working women no favours, so the answer is good childcare.

Chloe Smith
My hon. Friend is a Business Minister, so will she also put out a clarion call to potential entrepreneurs to start up childcare businesses with a view to the new policy coming in from 2017? It should be a win-win all around.

Anna Soubry
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but we have to ensure that the fees are right as well. That is the downside for parents, especially if they are not earning a great deal of money, because the cost of childcare can be extraordinarily high. For many families, it becomes a really difficult balancing act of going back to work and working the hours they want to work, while also having enough money to pay for the childcare. That is why I would love us to work towards a situation in which we can all enjoy free childcare. It is the stuff of dreams, but a great goal to have.
 
Ruth Cadbury
I welcome the Minister’s comments on childcare, which has not been mentioned, so she is absolutely right to bring it into the debate. Will she pay attention to the funding of the 30-hour option, because ​in the past few weeks I have met several childcare providers in my constituency who are worried that they will struggle to keep afloat as businesses because of how the 30-hour offer is funded? If that is not sorted out, we will lose childcare places, rather than gain them.

Anna Soubry
Absolutely. It is really important—and I think that somebody said this in their speech—that people complain and bring all these cases to their MP. This is the place to raise such issues, and not just in debate. Write those letters to Ministers and hold them accountable.

As hon. Members know, there is a reshuffle under way. Some people might be surprised to see that I am here, but here I am replying to this debate—actually for a Minister who resigned yesterday. I will not go into all that or into the fact that this morning when I went into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my office no longer existed; it had been moved. Hey ho, these are happy jolly times and we move swiftly on.

Many points have been made about tribunals. We have a woman as the new Secretary of State for Justice—for the first time ever, we have a woman Lord Chancellor, which is brilliant news. She is a mother herself. Let us hold her to account on this matter. We now have a new Minister for Women and Equalities. I pay huge tribute to the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). I have no doubt that our new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), will take up these issues with the rigour that she applied in her previous brief in the Department for International Development. Maternity discrimination issues are really important and we must put them absolutely at the door of Government and our brilliant new woman Prime Minister.

Pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination have no place in today’s workplace and no place in a progressive society. I will not be able to answer all the points raised today, but I undertake that I—or whoever is in my shoes—will write to hon. Members after the debate. Female talent and experience make a huge contribution to the productivity of individual businesses and the economy generally. It does not make sense for employers to alienate a key group of their workforce, as many employers—but not enough— recognise and understand, so for a number of reasons it is surprising that we find ourselves debating pregnancy discrimination.

In response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), I think it is fair to say that some jobs genuinely are full-time jobs. When somebody goes on maternity leave and wants to come back and change their hours, it can cause problems for a lot of small business employers, in particular. We have to understand that it is not quite as simple for the smaller businesses as it is for some of the larger ones. Some jobs cannot be shared and some really are full-time jobs, but perhaps that is for another debate.

The EHRC has considered the research findings in depth and its recommendations to Government and others reflect that maternity discrimination is in part a cultural issue and that we are not going to change attitudes and behaviours that fall far short of what we expect in the modern world overnight. I am grateful to the EHRC for the work it has done and continues to do with the Government to take the Government’s response ​to its recommendations forward. It is right that we debate this important issue and take it to the highest level of Government.

We need to get it right, and it is important to work with businesses and others to bring about the required change within a legal framework that is already clear. That is why the commission, the Government and our partners, such as ACAS, are doing all the things that they are. We are exploring opportunities with the EHRC to bring on board businesses to articulate the benefits of supporting women and share their good practice across the business community, encouraging peers to join the initiative. That includes exploring how behavioural insights or nudges—techniques that can raise awareness of legal obligations and best practice—can make employers realise and understand that a happy workforce results in high production and all the things that they want to make their business successful and make it grow.

On that note, I thank all contributors to the debate and promise that they will get letters on all the various points raised. I urge them to continue to raise the issue at the highest levels of government, and I will do my part.