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Government hauled to court over self-employment grant discrimination claim

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The chancellor is due to appear at the High Court this Thursday over claims the government discriminated against women as part of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).

Campaign and charity group Pregnant Then Screwed issued legal proceedings against the chancellor in July 2020 for indirect sex discrimination over the way government grants were calculated.

It claimed that the way the SEISS grants were calculated and the eligibility conditions mean that women on maternity leave  have experienced a big drop in income, with some facing poverty.

This is because the calculations include time taken for maternity leave and therefore is considered as part of the average earnings element.

Pregnant Then Screwed said around 75,000 women have been impacted and when it asked the chancellor to change the SEISS so that time taken for maternity leave is discounted, his “insulting” response triggered the legal move.

The chancellor reportedly replied: “For all sorts of reasons people have ups and downs and variations in their earnings, whether through maternity, ill-health or others.”

After writing a pre-action protocol letter to the chancellor, the group claimed his legal team compared maternity leave to taking a sabbatical.

‘We felt we had no choice but to start legal proceedings’

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said: “The government has had nine months to amend this scheme so that it doesn’t discriminate against women; but they have chosen not to.

“We’ve had heart breaking messages from so many women. For some this drop in income has left them and their young family in desperate poverty; while their male colleagues are in receipt of the full benefit.”

Brearley added: “This isn’t just about the vulnerable new mothers who have received a payment that is well below what they should have received. It is about the critical importance of maternity leave and ensuring that as a society we value it.

“Giving birth and caring for the next generation, particularly in a baby’s first year of life, is work; it is mentally and physically exhausting work. Not only that but ensuring the next generation survives and thrives is surely the most important job there is.

“For maternity leave to be dismissed as the same as being sick or taking a sabbatical is not only insulting, but it sends out a very dangerous message about how this government views mothers and the integral role we play in a well-functioning society. This court case is about defending women’s rights and showing the government that they cannot ride roughshod over the Equality Act.”

Pregnant Then Screwed, with support from Doughty Street Chambers and law firm Leigh Day gives these three ground for its challenge:

  1.  The SEISS calculation clause violates Article 14 (the right to protection from discrimination) read in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No.1 (the right to property) of the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, SEISS indirectly discriminates against women who have taken maternity leave and, alternatively, discriminates against women who have taken maternity leave by failing to treat their situation differently to people who have not.
  2. The SEISS calculation clause breaches section 19 of the Equality Act 2010 by indirectly discriminating against women who have taken maternity leave.
  3. The Chancellor has not complied with the public sector equality duty imposed by s.149 Equality Act 2010. In particular, the Chancellor has failed to give “due regard” to the impact that the SEISS eligibility conditions and calculation clause have on women.

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