Steve Hilton, speaking in 2015. Photo: Policy Exchange (under creative commons)
Does Steve Hilton’s ‘blue sky thinking’ give the game away on Brexit and pregnancy rights?
Today Steve Hilton, the PM’s friend and former adviser, is making the headlines for declaring his support for Britain to leave the EU. In an article in the Daily Mail he makes his case for Brexit claiming that Britain’s membership of the EU makes the country “literally ungovernable”. He complains: “membership of the EU brings with it constraints on everything from employment law to family policy”.
It’s worth remembering that in 2011, when Mr. Hilton was the PM’s strategy director, he made the headlines for suggesting that maternity leave should be abolished. This was apparently in a discussion on scrapping red tape to boost economic growth. A source close to him at the time reported that Mr. Hilton thought maternity rights are “the biggest obstacle to a woman finding work”.
As the TUC has pointed out countless times, the evidence on maternity rights points in the opposite direction: as maternity rights have improved over the past three decades so has women’s employment. If this particular point was not made to Mr. Hilton at the time, then I am sure that an official would have pointed out that maternity leave cannot be scrapped, because EU law requires it.
EU law also guarantees a range of other maternity rights. It helps ensure the health of pregnant women and new mothers is protected by providing a right to paid time off to attend ante-natal appointments and the right to be moved to suitable alternative work if there is a risk to mother or baby.
It is because of the Pregnant Workers Directive, implemented in this country in 1993, that women are protected from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy or maternity from day one of employment. If the standard qualifying period for unfair dismissal applied today the TUC estimates a fifth of new mothers would not be protected.
Steve Hilton was also reported to advise the PM that he should just ignore the Temporary Agency Worker Directive and not implement it in the UK. Thanks to this Directive, pregnant agency workers who are still very vulnerable in today’s workplaces, gained at least some minimum protections like the right to paid time off for ante-natal appointments (albeit subject to a 12-week qualifying period in the UK).
Pregnant workers, including pregnant agency workers, also have the protection of being able to claim pregnancy discrimination if they are treated unfavourably by their employer today, again thanks to EU law. In 1994, the European Court of Justice said that because pregnancy was a condition particular to women, treating a woman unfavourably because of it was direct sex discrimination. This was in a case brought by a British woman who had lost her job when she became pregnant. Up until that point, the British courts had ruled that the woman did not have a case because, they said, a sick man who was going to be off work when the employer needed him would have been dismissed too.
Steve Hilton may be frustrated by the constraints that EU rules placed on his ‘blue-sky thinking’ while working in No. 10. But many working women will be very pleased that the EU guarantees their rights. They will not want to risk seeing them cut by an unconstrained, deregulatory government post-Brexit.