HC Deb 16 September 2004 vol 424 cc1450-2
21. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of legislation protecting women from unfair dismissal in cases of maternity leave.␣[189164]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

In 2003–04, employment tribunals received 694 applications from women who believed that they were dismissed because of pregnancy, maternity and childbirth, and 80 relating to being prevented from returning to work after maternity leave. The law makes it quite clear that women cannot be discriminated against or dismissed because of pregnancy or childbirth, and I regret the fact that some employers still seem to be flouting the law.

Dr Cable

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the law is secure, especially in the light of the precedent created recently in the case of Manor Bakeries and Mrs. Ursell in my constituency? The tribunal ruled that a woman could be sacked in a case of maternity leave, even if she had an exemplary record and references, provided that the decision was made on commercial grounds.

Ms Hewitt

I am not aware of the specific case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, so I invite him to send me further details of it. I believe that the law is clear on dismissal and discrimination. Employment tribunal cases do not set legal precedents and I do not know whether that specific decision is being appealed. We have invited the Equal Opportunities Commission to consider the real problem of employers who still do not accept the need to recognise that women will have children—that is a very good thing too. The commission will report to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality and me shortly, so we shall consider carefully its recommendations for any further action that might be needed.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that pregnancy discrimination is still widespread? Has she heard of the case of the Cardiff manager who was advised by her boss to have an abortion or face the sack? Does she agree that the law should be made clearer and codified, as recommended by the Equal Opportunities Commission?

Ms Hewitt

I am indeed aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers. It was absolutely disgraceful and hugely distressing to the woman and her family. As my hon. Friend indicated, the Equal Opportunities Commission has already produced an interim report and is recommending even clearer advice to employees and employers on their rights and responsibilities. We will consider that in the context of its final report on its investigation.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

In July this year, Godfrey Bloom MEP said: No self-respecting businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a woman of childbearing age. It is relatively easy to see when a woman is discriminated against because she is pregnant, but less easy to see when she is discriminated against because she is of childbearing age. What is the Minister doing to tackle that problem?

Ms Hewitt

The remarks made by that UKIP Member were absolutely absurd. A growing number of women of all ages are entering the labour market and getting employment because employers need their skills and talents. It is simply not in the interest of any well-run business to discriminate against a woman because she is of childbearing age or has a baby. We must keep pressing that point to the minority of employers who have still not moved into the 21st century.