Extend the time limit for submitting an employment tribunal claim – from three months to six months – in cases of pregnancy or maternity discrimination. Hmmm.
Yep, I was pretty sceptical when serious people – including Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) officials – first floated the idea, during the Commission’s 18-month, BEIS-commissioned and funded investigation into the extent and nature of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace.
Not because I thought it a bad idea, I hasten to add. After 13 years at Citizens Advice, and having researched and written the 2013 Maternity Action report Overdue, I was aware of and understood the problem. I just didn’t think the idea would fly. Too many employment lawyers and judges would surely say ‘But what about claimants in cases of X? Shouldn’t they have six months too?’. And the Ministry of Injustice would just say ‘no’. We can’t have women accessing justice. Not in the 21st century.
But in March 2016, after months of delay in the publication of its final report, the EHRC duly recommended “increasing the time limit for a woman to bring an Employment Tribunal claim in cases involving pregnancy and maternity discrimination from three to six months”. A few months later, the Justice and then the Women & Equalities committee of MPs agreed this was a very good idea, with the latter stating:
“There is clear evidence [sic] of a need to extend the limit for new and expectant mothers. We therefore endorse the Justice Committee’s recommendation that the Government review the three-month time limit for bringing a claim in maternity and pregnancy discrimination cases. We suggest that six months would be a more suitable time limit.”
And clear evidence there is. For example:
Sally [not her real name] suffered repeated discrimination during her pregnancy, including a downgrading of her job, and sexist comments by her manager. Then, when 32 weeks pregnant, medical complications resulted in Sally being hospitalised until she gave birth at 38 weeks. “If I had wanted to take my case to an employment tribunal, I would have had to issue the claim within four weeks after the birth of my child, in order to meet the three-month tribunal deadline. Impossible! I barely knew my name at this time, and couldn’t think beyond breast pumps and nipple cream. So how could I ever be expected to deal with the stress of standing up to fight for my rights in a tribunal?”
To the surprise of no one, least of all me, in January 2017 the Government rejected the Committee’s recommendation. However, in March this year, in a Westminster Hall debate, the chair of the Committee, former cabinet minister Maria Miller, noted that:
“Another problem for pregnant women is the time limit that precludes their taking action where there has been discrimination; action cannot be taken more than three months after the incident. I cannot recall how old your children are, Mr Chope [the Chair], but I am sure you can cast your mind back to the position three months after the birth of a child or three months after your wife might have taken maternity leave. It is a hectic time when it is difficult to think about bringing a discrimination case. There are better things to do.
I was therefore slightly disappointed that the Government said that at this point they will not consider extending that time limit for pregnant women to six months. It would be entirely appropriate to do that. I do not think there would be a cost to the Government in doing so, and a great deal of fairness would come into play. I hope that they can do that.”
That month, the energetic Pregnant Then Screwed group, which had latched onto the idea at an early stage, launched a campaign with the hashtag #GiveMeSix. More than 70 MPs from seven parties – Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the DUP, the SDLP, and the Green Party – signed an Early Day Motion in support of the campaign call. And then, in late May, the Labour Party’s general election manifesto pledged (see p109) to “extend the time period for applying for maternity discrimination to the employment tribunal from three to six months”. The idea was definitely airborne.
Sadly, of course, this and other welcome manifesto pledges – and the worst Conservative election campaign ever – were not sufficient to propel Labour into power. However, with the establishment of a hung and bung Parliament, a new Early Day Motion in support of the #GiveMeSix campaign’s policy ask has been signed by more than 80 MPs, including Labour’s Harriet Harman, Stella Creasy and Chuka Umunna, the Conservative Sir Peter Bottomley, and the Liberal Democrat former employment relations minister, Jo Swinson.
It wouldn’t hurt ministers much to concede and implement the reform. As the following chart shows, and for reasons highlighted by the BEIS/EHRC research, the number of pregnancy or maternity discrimination-related claims has never been huge, and has been even smaller since the introduction of hefty tribunal fees in July 2013. So, just as Maria Miller suggested, there’s no danger of the tribunal system being overwhelmed by a wave of new claims.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. For, when it comes to unlawful pregnancy discrimination, equalities minister Claire Perry told the House of Commons yesterday that she and business minister Margot James are “absolutely determined to sort things out” and will “come down like a ton of bricks on any employer who breaks the law”. Yes, really.