Workplace discrimination against pregnant women in the UK has seen a "shocking" increase over the past decade, and strong action by Government is needed to combat it, a House of Commons Committee reports today.

The Women & Equalities Committee wants to see protections similar to those in Germany, and has called for urgent action from the Government, demanding an ambitious, detailed plan within the next two years.

Measures it wants to see include changes to health and safety practices, preventing discriminatory redundancies and an increase in protection for casual, agency and zero-hours workers.

Otherwise, it says, the country risks seeing even more pregnant women and mothers being forced out of their work.

Research carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Equality & Human Rights Commission found that 11% of women reported being either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. The committee's report recommends implementation of a system similar to that used in Germany, under which such women can be made redundant only in specified circumstances.

The MPs heard strong evidence that women were not taking action in large enough numbers to ensure that employers observe existing protections, and that the three month time limit on pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases did not recognise the pressures on expectant mothers. The report recommends an extension to six months, along with a substantial reduction in tribunal fees for discrimination cases.

New and expectant mothers who are casual, agency and zero-hours workers also need protection, the committee concludes. Women in this group are more likely to report a risk or impact to their health and welfare than other types of worker; more likely to leave their employer as a result of health and safety risks not being resolved; and less likely to feel confident about challenging discriminatory behaviour.

The committee wants to see paid time off for antenatal appointments extended to all workers after a short qualifying period, and the Government urgently reviewing the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to casual, agency and zero-hours workers.

Other recommendations include:

  • Employers should be required to undertake an individual risk assessment when they are informed that a woman who works for them is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding. The Health & Safety Executive should include this requirement in its guidance to employers by the end of 2016.
  • New and expectant mothers who are concerned that their health and/or the health of their baby is being put at risk by their work should have an easily accessible, formal mechanism to compel their employer to deal with such risks appropriately.
  • Given the uncertainty about what Brexit will mean, a statement of the Government's intention to ensure that rights and protections are not eroded would provide welcome reassurance during this period of transition.
  • The Government should work with the main organisations providing free, good quality, one-to-one advice to women on pregnancy and maternity discrimination to monitor the uptake of and estimated unmet need for such advice.

Committee chair Maria Miller commented:

"The arrival of a new baby puts family finances under extreme pressure yet, despite this, thousands of expectant and new mothers have no choice but to leave their work because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination. Shockingly this figure has almost doubled in the last decade, now standing at 54,000.

"There are now record numbers of women in work in the UK. The economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection for expectant and new mums."

She added: "The Government's approach to improving compliance with pregnancy and maternity discrimination law has been confusing. It has stated that it is important to focus on enforcement and yet its main policy focus is awareness-raising and persuasion. It has voiced concern about the low numbers of women taking enforcement action against their employer, but has rejected the EHRC's recommendations to remove unfair barriers to justice and has no plans to ease the burden of enforcement on women."

Business Minister Margot James responded: "It is completely unacceptable that pregnant women and new mothers are apparently being forced to quit their jobs because of outdated attitudes.

"Tackling this issue is a key priority of mine and this Government and I would like to thank the committee for its important work. We will consider its recommendations carefully and respond in due course."

Click here to access the committee's report.