Sharon Hodgson

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West - Disclaimer: Please note, as Parliament has now dissolved, there are currently no MPs. As this website was set up while Sharon was an MP, any mentions to that fact here are historical.

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  • Speeches / Effects of Maternity Discrimination Westminster Hall Debate 15.03.17

Effects of Maternity Discrimination Westminster Hall Debate 15.03.17

A week after International Women's Day and over a week away from Mother's Day, Sharon secured a debate on the effects of Maternity Discrimination, and raised issues with this form of discrimination's impact on society and our economy, along with the work of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the Women and Equalities Select Committee, and what more the Government should be doing to tackle this discrimination in the workplace. 

You can read Sharon's speech here in Hansard: Sharon Hodgson MP Effects of Maternity Discrimination Westminster Hall Debate 15.03.17

Speech pasted below:

9.30 am

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of maternity discrimination.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am very pleased to have secured this debate on an important topic for many women and a key campaigning area for the Labour party: maternity discrimination. I thank all hon. Members who have turned out this morning to contribute to it.

Maternity discrimination is an issue that cannot be ignored. It is only right that action be taken to ensure that this persistent issue in our society is ended once and for all. It is a welcome point of reflection for us all that this debate comes exactly a week after we celebrated International Women’s Day and just over a week before mothers’ day. I felt it was important to secure the debate between those two dates, to press the Government to do more, but also to raise awareness of the many women beyond these walls who are met with blatant and unnecessary discrimination.

Many people—some of whom may even be in this Chamber today, although I hope not—think that maternity discrimination is not a concern that we should focus on, possibly because it does not feature on their radar at all. But it is real, it is happening and it is becoming ever present in our society. Action is needed. That is clearly documented in the Women and Equalities Committee report from last August, which highlighted the fact that pregnant women and mothers are now reporting more discrimination and worse treatment in the workplace than 10 years ago. By some estimates, that discrimination is double what it used to be. According to the Government’s own figures, one in nine women—54,000 in total—are forced out of their jobs each year because of being a mother or becoming pregnant. If that statistic applied to the women elected to this place, it would mean 21 of our fellow female MPs being forced out of this House. If that happened, we would be up in arms and raising merry hell on the Floor of the House. Well, if it is not acceptable for women in this place, it is not acceptable for women in any workplace.

A hundred years ago, women got the vote for the very first time, as part of a campaign to see women become part of public life so that they did not have to abide by the whim of a man and could be fully integrated into society, taking their rightful place as both actors and influencers in how our country should look and act. However, a century on, women still face many hurdles, and all because of their gender.​

I will touch on three key themes in my speech. First, I want to set the scene by expanding on the ramifications, both economic and social, of maternity discrimination in our society. I will then move on to the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Women and Equalities Committee. Finally, I will look at what the Government are doing—or not doing—to end maternity discrimination.

As I said, this place would be a lot worse off if the statistics on maternity discrimination were replicated in this, the mother of Parliaments. However, maternity discrimination has a far broader impact on our society than some may first expect. The financial costs identified affect not only society, but businesses, the Government and the women themselves. A report last year by the EHRC found:

“The cost to employers of women being forced to leave their job as a result of…discrimination…was estimated to be around £278.8 million over the course of a year.”

Much of that cost was incurred owing to recruitment and training to replace the woman who was forced out of her job, lost productivity from being down a member of staff and statutory maternity payments if the woman was on leave when she left work. For the Government, maternity discrimination means not only lost tax revenue from women not working, but increased benefit payments when they seek support because they have been forced out of work. The cost to the Government is between £14 million and £16.7 million a year.

The financial losses that women themselves face have been estimated to range from between £28.9 million and £34.2 million. Some 20% of women reported significant financial losses as a result of failing to get a promotion, receiving lower pay increases or bonuses than they would have secured were they not pregnant, or even demotion for becoming pregnant. Pregnancy and children are costly—there is no doubt about it—but the costs incurred by women are unjust, unfair and discriminatory. The gift of pregnancy should never be a cost to a women’s potential or her economic worth.

It is not only the economic costs of women being forced out of the workplace or facing discrimination for becoming pregnant that are a problem, but the social and equality issues that arise. Women’s position in society has come on in leaps and bounds from the time when they were not able to vote, could not work once they were married, had to stay at home or had to defer to a man for every major decision made in their life—as late as the 1970s, women had to have a male guarantor for a mortgage. However, the specific issue of maternity discrimination highlights the fact that the position of women in our society is still tentative. There is still a long way to go.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. Does she agree that such discrimination also happens later on in life? We should recognise that women also face discrimination during the menopause. That point was very well made to me on Saturday by the Wales TUC women’s committee, which is doing a survey on that very subject.

Mrs Hodgson 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that period in women’s lives. I will not be able to touch on it in my speech, but it is very important. There is a real lack of knowledge about what women have to go through during the menopause. I am probably not long off that period myself. People have no idea what women may have to go through, but we hear all the horror stories. A little understanding from employers would make all the difference. I know that I would probably be a better employer after I have gone through it; unfortunately, men do not have that luxury, so they rely upon us to tell them. That is definitely an important aspect of the matter, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.

Some may argue otherwise, but for me and many other women—especially on this side of the House, but across the House, too—equality is a cause worth fighting for, because it creates not only a fairer society, but a stronger and more resilient one. Maternity discrimination holds us back from achieving that goal of an equal society. We need renewed vigour to tackle the problem, so that we can fully realise our country’s potential, with everyone having a fair chance in life and not having to face discrimination for being who they are. It was therefore welcome that this time last year the EHRC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published their findings on the prevalence and nature of maternity discrimination in our society, so that we could fully understand the scale of the problem, which was indeed damning. The research showed that, of the women surveyed,

“77%...had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy; maternity leave; and on their return from maternity leave.”

Such experiences included facing harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy, struggling to secure flexible working from their employer to manage the demands of pregnancy and subsequent childcare, or, for 9% of women, feeling that they had to leave their job because they were being treated poorly or unfairly.

What women are documented as facing because of pregnancy and impending motherhood is worrying and deeply shocking. Even case studies from Maternity Action’s helpline have documented these shameful occurrences. One woman became so stressed with her working environment, where she was being singled out by her manager and treated appallingly, that she was signed off sick with stress before her maternity leave had even begun. As we all know, when someone is pregnant, stress is the last thing she needs. She is told to have a calm and radiant time, which was hardly the case for that mother. It goes without saying that no woman should face such hurdles in life or feel pressured into choosing between having children or having a career that progresses at the same rate as the careers of their male counterparts.

Following the forensic light shone on the issue by the EHRC, the Women and Equalities Committee, under the excellent leadership of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who I am thrilled to see in the Chamber today—I look forward to her contribution —undertook to investigate maternity discrimination further. In August last year, that inquiry produced some excellent recommendations for the Government to look at and act upon. Sadly, however, it took until January of this year for the Government to respond to the inquiry’s findings.​

Included in the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report were further calls for action around the health and safety of pregnant women in the workplace, such as placing a duty on employers to conduct an individual risk assessment for new and expectant mothers, all the way to identifying issues around casual, agency and zero-hours workers, who do not have the same pregnancy and maternity entitlements as women classed as employees.

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab)

In an economy that increasingly relies on temporary contracts, more and more women are unable to access any kind of statutory maternity leave, because they have no right to it. That is because they are classed as workers rather than employees. Does my hon. Friend agree that much more needs to be done to provide those women with better access to maternity rights?

Mrs Hodgson

I totally agree. On the issue of workers and employees, there is clearly a need to tidy up the law so that women who work in these areas of the labour market are protected and guaranteed the same rights as those women who are classed as employees, so I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that issue. Indeed, Maternity Action has pushed for action on it and recently made a submission to the Matthew Taylor review, which aims to look at working practices in the modern economy, and to the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy inquiry, “Future World of Work”. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on progress on this issue.

It is safe to say that when the Government eventually responded to the Women and Equalities Committee report, the response was far from pleasing. Although the Government’s commitment to zero tolerance of discrimination against expectant or new mothers in the workplace is to be welcomed, as is the announcement of a consultation on protecting pregnant women against redundancy, sadly the wider response failed to see words leading to action. The Government’s response can easily be seen as a mixture of defending the unacceptable status quo and kicking the issue into the long grass, as if it was something that should be thought about on another day. The Government are failing to realise that this is happening right now.

I am not just making a party political point. The likes of Maternity Action have analysed the Government’s response and reaction to each of the recommendations and have come to the same conclusion: that the Government see this as an issue for another day. I have a lot of time and respect for the Minister who is responding to this debate—she knows that—but I find the Government’s response disappointing to say the least. That is why I hope she can offer me some reassurances when she responds to this debate.

I would like the Minister to consider two things ahead of her response. First, when will we see the details of the consultation on protecting pregnant women from redundancy? Two months on from the Government’s commitment to consult on this issue, we are yet to see publication of the scale or time frame. I hope that information will be forthcoming following this debate, and sooner rather than later. Even better, the Minister could announce further details in her speech today.​

My second ask is that the Government take another look at the excellent recommendations in the Select Committee’s report and heed the words of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, who said that the Government’s response was

“a missed opportunity for the Government to demonstrate the urgency and bite on this issue that we found lacking”.

I could not have put it better myself. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will commit to re-evaluating the Government’s response to the Select Committee report and their own wider actions when it comes to maternity discrimination.

To conclude, we have come a long way in the march for women’s equality. I know that this point will not be lost on the Minister, but it bears reiterating: as the current standard bearers, we in this House have a duty to uphold the work done by the women who came before us. Failing to end maternity discrimination would betray our crusading predecessors, who campaigned to improve the position of women in society. As women here today, we have the power to make the changes possible for women who face discrimination in the workplace for being pregnant or being a new mother. However, we must also stand up for the women who will come after those facing these challenges now, and ensure that in the future no woman faces discrimination in the workplace for doing what is only natural—having a child.

I hope that the Minister will heed this call to arms and take it back to her officials, knowing that we in this House and many more women beyond this Chamber are willing her on to make the changes needed and improve the standing of women in the workplace. She alone has the power to do that. I hope she realises that and does not squander this incredible position she has to enact change.

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