HC Deb 25 March 2004 vol 419 cc1053-5
21. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

What plans she has to reduce discrimination against pregnant women in employment. [163453]

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith)

Employers who discriminate against pregnant women are breaking the law and could be liable to pay compensation. Furthermore, they are harming their own businesses by excluding talented women from the work force. The Government welcome new research in that area and, in particular, look forward to the results of the Equal Opportunities Commission's investigation.

Julie Morgan

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and I am pleased that she is aware of the EOC research. Is she aware that the initial findings show that more than 1,000 women a year bring cases of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and that the compensation they receive is £2,000 lower than for non-pregnancy discrimination dismissals? Will she take seriously the results of the EOC research and consider acting on them?

Jacqui Smith

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the final results of the EOC's investigation will not be available until 2005, we have already seen some important early information from its research. I am pleased that the investigation is focusing on the extent of the problem—how many women are affected by pregnancy discrimination—on the impact on their lives and families and on what can be done to make pregnancy a positive experience in the workplace. The EOC is also working with employers, many of whom have good practice in relation to pregnant women, so that we can learn from them what more we need to do to get rid of the few bad employers who discriminate against pregnant women, to the detriment of those women and their businesses.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con)

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the voters of Epping Forest deserve to be commended for showing no discrimination against pregnant women when they reelected me at the last general election with an increased majority exactly one week before the birth of my son. The Minister will therefore be in no doubt that I entirely share her aim, that of the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and that of the EOC. However, I urge her to try to achieve that aim by changing attitudes so that it is generally recognised that a pregnant woman in employment is doing two important jobs. After all, the production of the next generation is just as important as the production of goods and services. However, I encourage the Minister not to introduce further regulation, because the more regulation we have, the more employers are likely to be dissuaded from employing and promoting good women who might bear children.

Jacqui Smith

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position on the Front Bench. I strongly agree with her that women can be both pregnant and extremely productive, as I also know from recent experience. However, I disagree with her recommended approach. Helping women to work more flexibly, and increasing statutory maternity pay and leave, will benefit women and enable them to combine the crucial job of producing children with remaining productive in their workplace. The hon. Lady cannot will the ends unless she is able to will the means. The changes introduced by the Government will improve the position of all women, and men, in sharing responsibilities in relation to the work-life balance. I hope that she will not take the approach—

Mr. Speaker


Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the worst employers use manifold legal devices to try to oust pregnant women? Despite the case in 1988, it is still frequently disguised as redundancy when a woman is, in fact, being sacked because she is pregnant. When the EOC finally reports, will my right hon. Friend look carefully into all the implications to see whether there is a need to tighten up the law to give better protection for pregnant women? Will she also look into increasing the compensation, which, nowadays, is too low?

Jacqui Smith

My hon. and learned Friend points to some important issues, and I am pleased that the EOC will be considering them. It is clear that case law and our current legislation make it illegal to discriminate against pregnant women, but the problem still exists, which is why we need to consider it through the investigation. We shall most certainly look at the recommendations and take action based on them. We need to ensure not only that the law is in place, but that employers—from the best to the worst—act according to both its letter and its spirit to protect and promote pregnant women.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) has already highlighted the fact that compensation for pregnant women is, on average, under £2,000 less; but is not the reality that for most employers the penalty for getting rid of a pregnant woman is only a fraction of her annual salary, so it is a quick and easy option? The fact that 21 per cent. of people know somebody who has experienced problems due to pregnancy shows that the problem is real and it should not be minimised by the Minister saying that only a minority of employers discriminate.

Jacqui Smith

I am sorry if the hon. Lady thinks that I was minimising the problem. Actually, I started with the extremely strong statement that employers who discriminate against pregnant women are breaking the law and that they could be, and should be, liable to pay compensation. I also said that we support the Equal Opportunities Commission. The hon. Lady made a point about compensation in tribunals, but there is another important argument that we need to get over to employers: to replace a leaver, an employer will spend, on average, £4,000, so not only is it wrong to get rid of women because they are pregnant, it costs the business money, too. That is why we shall continue to take legal and other action to ensure that pregnancy discrimination is outlawed.