How have SEISS payments (indirectly) discriminated against pregnant women?

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SEISS stands for the Self-employment income support scheme, which was introduced by the 

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, in April 2020 to support self-employed workers who were adversely affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. However, a recent Court of Appeal ruling found that self-employed women who took maternity leave were indirectly discriminated against by the government due to the way the SEISS payments were calculated. According to the charity ‘Pregnant then screwed’, the scheme affected nearly 69,200 women, leaving some with barely enough money to cover rent and food bills during the pandemic. Despite this, the court ruling also declared that these women are unable to claim any rebates from the government covid scheme.

How is SEISS calculated?

SEISS indirectly discriminated against self-employed women because of the factors taken into account when it was calculated. The payments considered 0% of self-employed profits on average between the years of 2016 and 2019, without accounting for periods in which women were off for maternity leave or  receiving statutory maternity payments. In doing this, women who had taken maternity leave from 2016, had severe reductions to their payments.

One woman, who assisted ‘Pregnant then Screwed’ with the legal claim had been working for four days a week in 2020, but it was the period of time between 2016 to 2019, in which she had taken maternity leave and on leave to look after a young child, that the SEISS payments were based on. Consequently, she received only around 5% of her income during the pandemic. If she had qualified for the furlough scheme (i.e. was not self-employed), this percentage of her wages would have risen to 80%.

The charity ‘Pregnant then screwed’ sought clarity and action from the Chancellor following these inadequacies of SEISS. However, Sunak argued that ‘for all sorts of reasons people have ups and downs and variations in their earnings, whether through maternity, ill-health or other.’  This explanation failed to satisfy the charity, who highlighted that maternity leave was compulsory by statute and not a choice for women. This distinguishes maternity leave from other forms of sabbatical leave from work. 

The High Court heard the case in January 2021, but there was no success for the charity. The court claimed that the chancellor had considered women who had taken maternity leave when creating the scheme and his actions were justified. 

The Court of Appeal partly overturned this decision on November 25th. They found that the case for indirect discrimination against self-employed mothers was very clearly made out. However, the nature of SEISS as a government covid scheme, would mean that rebates would not be feasible. In light of this, it is important to note that the women negatively and sizeably affected by the discrimination of SEISS wil not receive any compensation for their struggle. This perhaps indicates existing shortcomings within government protocols when it comes to considering the plight of pregnant women. 

Overview

  • The  Self-employment income support scheme (SEISS) indirectly discriminated against self-employed women by failing to take into account time taken off for maternity leave during the calculation period of 2016 – 2018.
  • The charity ‘Pregnant then screwed’ brought legal action against the chancellor for indirect discrimination and won their case in the Court of Appeal.

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