Currently, those absent on maternity leave should receive preferential treatment in redundancy situations; for example, being offered a suitable alternative vacancy above those not on maternity leave. The consultation proposes to extend this protection to pregnant mothers until six months after a return to work.
Employers that are not aware of the legal ramifications might consider making maternity returners redundant if they have successfully redistributed the work while the employee was on leave, or might inadvertently select a maternity returner for redundancy when she has not had the opportunity to refresh business contacts, get stuck into projects or stay late, due to childcare commitments. Given this, the justification for these proposals might be seen as necessary and relatively uncontentious.
However, the consultation also considers other new parents. Should the same preferential protection be introduced for adoption leave, shared parental leave and longer periods of parental leave? This could be a significant step, particularly for men and same-sex partners sharing parental responsibilities.
The consultation does not ask whether there should be any minimum length of leave for such protection, but the reference to ‘longer periods of parental leave’ suggests a minimum might be introduced, which seems sensible. Shared parental leave, for example, can potentially only last one week and allows several separate periods of time off; would it be fair for these parents to have the same rights regardless of how long they had been on leave?
Some people may be concerned that working flexibly will label them as not committed to their careers. To bring about equality, those who take longer periods of leave for parenting should have the comfort of knowing they are not more vulnerable to redundancy.
If the same protection proposed was extended to other types of leave, it might be another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of changing attitudes regarding men, same-sex partners and childcare. This could even have a knock-on effect in improving the gender pay gap.
Lisa Wallis is a senior associate in the Southampton office of the employment law team at Blake Morgan Solicitors