Last year the Women and Equalities Select Committee of MPs published a report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Committee called on the government to take urgent action in a number of areas, including legislating to give a very high level of protection from redundancy until six months after the end of maternity leave. The government has now responded.
In general, the recommendations have not been adopted, the government taking the view that rights in this area are adequately protected by the existing law, or (in the case of the discrepancy between rights for workers as compared to employees) will be covered by the Taylor review of modern employment practices, due to report later this year. However, there is now a commitment to consider strengthening rights for pregnant women and returners on redundancy, in the light of statistics on the numbers of women being made redundant or feeling compelled to leave their jobs. The Committee's recommendation was to adopt a system, similar to that in Germany, under which employees can be made redundant only in very exceptional cases, such as liquidation, with protection applying throughout pregnancy/maternity leave and for six months afterwards.
Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee has launched an inquiry into how employers can better support fathers in the workplace. This initiative was triggered by a finding in the Committee's gender pay gap report that shared parental leave will have a predicted take-up rate of just 2%–8%. The inquiry was also prompted by the latest research results from Working Families, revealing that almost half of working fathers would like to downshift for a better work-life balance.
Some of the issues the Committee will look at between now and 1 March include:
• employment-related barriers to fathers sharing caring roles more equally;
• challenges for fathers working in particular employment sectors;
• potential policy or legislative changes to support fathers – Working Families has called for a new extended period of paid paternity leave;
• examples (in the UK or internationally) of best practice among employers that could be taken up more widely.
Finally, the Committee has published a report on "High heels and workplace dress codes", released jointly with the Petitions Committee – the report was triggered by a petition to make it illegal to require women to wear high heels at work which will be debated in Parliament next month. The report asks the government to take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act in protecting workers from discrimination in this area and recommends that employment tribunals should be able to ask for more effective remedies for breach, such as financial penalties. The report includes medical evidence suggesting that women who have to wear high heels for extended periods of time could suffer long-term health problems.