Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on Contents

3Employment and the work environment

Health and safety

37.Our previous report raised concerns that many employers had not met their health and safety duties towards pregnant women in the early stages of the pandemic—despite this group being designated as clinically vulnerable to covid-19.53 One year on, we heard that this remains a concern, with little to suggest the situation has improved.

38.More than one-in-eight respondents to our June 2021 survey “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the statement “my workplace takes covid safety precautions seriously and I feel I am, or will be, safe”. Ros Bragg of Maternity Action told us that a quarter of calls to their advice line during the pandemic had been from women concerned about poor health and safety at work, and that for women in frontline roles in particular, “health and safety management has been consistently poor throughout the pandemic”.54 Witnesses suggested that pregnant women had been a “forgotten cohort” in relation to safety at work during the pandemic.55

39.Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed told us their research in April 2021 found that less than half of pregnant women working outside the home said their employers had completed and were following a risk assessment,56 despite this being required by guidance from the Health and Safety Executive57 (HSE) and reiterated in guidance on GOV.UK.58 Even where women were suspended from work on safety grounds, either proactively or following such an assessment, she suggested few had been suspended on correct terms with full pay, significantly impacting these women’s incomes.59

40.Last year we recommended that the Government take action to ensure women whose incomes fell due to their employer suspending them on incorrect terms (such as placing them on Statutory Sick Pay) did not see their entitlement to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) affected as a result.60 However, the Government’s response argued—despite the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, and its acknowledgement of “anecdotal evidence” of employers asking pregnant employees to take sick leave—that “women claiming Statutory Sick Pay during their earnings assessment period is not a new situation” and that it had no plans to change how periods of sick pay would be treated in SMP calculations during the pandemic.61

41.Witnesses suggested the official guidance on health and safety for pregnant employees had been insufficiently specific, clear or well-communicated.62 They also raised particular concerns about the effectiveness of enforcement of this guidance by HSE and local authorities, leading to many employers treating the guidance as “optional”.63 As Ros Bragg put it:

The guidance is only ever going to be one small part of this picture. The biggest problem we have is employers disregarding it […] The idea that a woman has to take her employer to an employment tribunal in order to arrange basic health and safety protections is a guarantee that women will not have the health and safety protections that they need.64

Joeli Brearley cited a Freedom of Information request by Pregnant Then Screwed to HSE in November 2020, which revealed that HSE did not specifically record formal enforcement action regarding the safety of pregnant women.65 Witnesses were pessimistic about the prospects for effective enforcement of this guidance in the short-term and instead called for steps including a “marketing campaign”66 and financial incentives (via a furlough-type scheme) to encourage employers to follow the guidance.67

42.Despite existing guidance on protecting vulnerable workers on the Health and Safety Executive website and Working Safely guidance on GOV.UK, many pregnant women still report health and safety concerns at work. Adhering to this guidance should not be seen by employers as optional and there is a need to intensify messaging and enforcement to ensure new and expectant parents are, and feel, safe at work. Given that pregnant women were designated as clinically vulnerable, we are surprised to hear that HSE are not formally recording breaches of health and safety with regards to pregnant women and associated enforcement action.

43.We recommend that the Government urgently engage with the Health and Safety Executive and relevant stakeholder groups to review HSE’s monitoring and enforcement activity specifically relating to employers’ health and safety obligations to pregnant women. Any barriers to at-scale enforcement of these obligations must be quickly resolved, to ensure that appropriate enforcement action is taken when employers fail to meet their legal obligations—especially as more employees continue to return to work in person. The Government should also require HSE to record and publish details of enforcement action specifically relating to the safety of pregnant women in future.

Workplace discrimination and redundancy

44.Witnesses expressed concerns about the difficulties new parents are facing as they now return to work, especially with the end of work from home guidance since July. We heard that employers were refusing “very minor” flexible working requests, and that the impact of not being able to work flexibly was becoming much less “manageable” for new parents without the option of furlough or working from home in many cases.68 Several respondents to our public engagement survey in June this year told us their employer’s support for flexible working had helped them to work around childcare they had secured, but others told us flexible working was not supported by their employer, with some losing their jobs as a result.69 We also heard that many new parents, especially mothers, had seen their return to work affected by having to stay at home if their child was unable to attend school or an early years setting due to covid-19 isolation. In some cases, witnesses suggested these factors have led to women being forced out of work.70

45.Witnesses suggested the pandemic had shown that the existing legal framework for redundancy protection for new parents—in particular new mothers—was insufficient. While women on maternity leave already have some legal protection from redundancy, Ros Bragg argued that:

[Existing protections] help women only if there is a suitable alternative job available that they can be placed into. We are dealing with businesses downsizing, so there are very rarely suitable alternative jobs. Of course, there is protection against discrimination, but it is extraordinarily hard to prove. This is one of the most difficult things to pursue in the employment tribunal. It is time-consuming and expensive […] The situation is really quite desperate. We are seeing large numbers of women forced out of the workforce through unfair treatment and unfair redundancies.71

46.The Women and Equalities Committee, in its February 2021 report Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact,72 also expressed concern that pregnant women and new mothers may be particularly vulnerable to job losses as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to be felt. This may be a particular risk as Government support for businesses offered during the pandemic so far is unwound.

47.Witnesses also raised concerns about women’s ability to challenge being made redundant due to childcare issues through the employment tribunal system. As well as tackling the concerns expressed by Ros Bragg about the expensive and time-consuming nature of the tribunal process, Joeli Brearley suggested the “bare minimum” the Government could do to help women attempting to pursue a tribunal claim would be to extend the current 3-month time limit to raise a claim.73 We made this recommendation in our report last year; the Government’s response indicated this suggestion was being considered following its 2019 consultation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination,74 but the Government has not yet announced any plans to implement this proposal.

48.In response to concerns about workplace discrimination against new and expectant mothers, the Government has convened a stakeholder working group to look at the issue.75 It has also repeatedly committed (including in its response to our July 2020 report76) to extend existing redundancy protections for women on maternity leave to women during pregnancy and for six months after their return to work, and has indicated it intends to implement this measure through an Employment Bill “as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.77

49.We welcome the Government’s commitments to tackling workplace discrimination against new and expectant mothers and the actions it is taking to better understand this issue. We echo witnesses’ dismay at the apparent failure of current employment law and the tribunal system to prevent potentially discriminatory redundancies among new and expectant mothers during the pandemic. However, we note these concerns have also previously been expressed by the Women and Equalities Committee as well as in our own report last year, and we support their conclusion that the Government has not taken the necessary preventative actions on this issue—especially in light of its failure to act on the recommendations in our previous report. The Government must swiftly rectify this failing.

50.We echo our recommendation from last year’s report that the Government should legislate as soon as possible to introduce its planned extension of redundancy protections for new and expectant mothers. It must clarify a timeframe for doing this, and, if there is not sufficient parliamentary time to consider a full Employment Bill before the end of the year, the Government should immediately bring forward a short Bill specifically to implement these protections.

51.We also repeat our previous recommendation that the Government should extend the period in which new and expectant parents may bring claims to an employment tribunal. The Government must urgently conclude its work to consider this change and clarify when and how it will be implemented.

53 Petitions Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, paras 28-33, HC 526

57 Health and Safety Executive, Protect vulnerable workers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (last updated 17 September 2021) (accessed 17 September 2021)

58 GOV.UK, Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for pregnant employees (last updated 20 July 2021) (accessed 17 September 2021)

60 See Annex: Recommendations from July 2020 report, Recommendation 6

61 Petitions Committee, Second Special Report of Session 2019–21, The impact of COVID-19 on maternity and parental leave: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report, pp.7-8, HC 770

69 Petitions Committee - Summary of survey: The impact of Covid-19 on new parents - one year on (ICP0001)

72 Women and Equalities Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2019–21, Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact, para 92, HC 385

74 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Pregnancy and maternity discrimination: extending redundancy protection for women and new parents (last updated 22 July 2019) (accessed 17 September 2021)

76 Petitions Committee, Second Special Report of Session 2019–21, The impact of COVID-19 on maternity and parental leave: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report, p.18, HC 770

Published: 7 October 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement