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Pregnant Then Screwed is taking legal action against the Government because it doesn’t exempt periods of maternity leave when it assesses earnings for the purposes of the Self Employment Income Support Scheme.
Jen Downer is a self-employed musician and mother of three from Wales. Because she took maternity leave between April 2016 and April 2019 and the Government’s Self Employment Income Support Scheme is based on average earnings over those tax years, her entitlement was reduced. Jen earned just £1,562 in the first three months of the scheme, reduced to £1,366 for the second three-month period ending in November. She will receive £1,562 to get her through the next three months.
Jen, whose children are aged four, five and seven, teaches piano and music at a secondary school and was unable to do so until recently. In September, she was offered 5.5 hours of online teaching a week for this term – a quarter of her normal hours. The money runs out at Christmas. She also plays the fiddle for ceilidhs and weddings, but all her gigs over the summer were cancelled and she has no new ones as yet.
She says the family is lucky because her husband, also a musician, has since started a PGCE and gets a student loan and the family had already been claiming tax credits so could increase these as their income dropped.
Even so, Jen has had to be resourceful. She has attempted to bring in other income by running children’s singing groups and a community choir over Zoom, but that has only made about £600 over the entire period. In addition she is about to start baby/preschool music classes at a local dance studio where numbers will be limited due to Welsh rules on organised classes, but which she hopes to expand in the future.
Jen is just one of many mums affected by the SEISS rules on earnings, which campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed has been lobbying the Government on. It has just been granted permission for judicial review against the Chancellor of the Exchequer for discriminating against women in the implementation of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).
The campaign group is being represented by legal firm Leigh Day. It started legal proceedings after the Chancellor was asked why he had not exempted periods of maternity leave from the self employed grant calculations. His response was that: ‘’For all sorts of reasons people have ups and down and variations in their earnings, whether through maternity, ill health or others.’’ Pregnant Then Screwed wrote a pre-action protocol letter to the Chancellor and took legal advice about whether maternity leave could be compared to a sabbatical or any other type of leave.
Joeli Brearley, CEO and Founder of Pregnant Then Screwed says: ”We are very pleased the judge has now stated that our claim against the Government for indirect sex discrimination is arguable for the purposes of proceeding to a substantive hearing. Maternity leave is not the same as sick leave or taking a sabbatical; it is work that has a value to the whole of society, ensuring the next generation survive and thrive. By ignoring this unpaid labour, mainly done by women, the Government has yet again shown its contempt for those who do this critical care work, whilst simultaneously forcing many vulnerable new families into poverty.”
She adds: “The Government has a legal obligation to ensure none of their schemes have a disproportionate impact on anyone with a protected characteristic – the fact that women on maternity leave were clearly ignored when this scheme was designed and continue to be ignored even when this issue was repeatedly raised in Westminster, is deeply worrying. We hope the judge will rule in our favour and these vulnerable new mothers will be given the money they are entitled to.”
Leigh Day solicitor Anna Dews says its argument is that the way the scheme is devised disproportionately affects women who have not worked for reasons relating to maternity.
It is estimated that 75,000 self-employed women who had time off to have a baby between April 2016 and April 2019 have lost earnings compared to other applicants because of the way the grant is calculated. The judge has agreed that the hearing should be expedited and it will be listed for a hearing urgently.
The case is being supported by a range of organisations, including The Writers Guild, the National Union of Journalists, the Musicians Union and Equity.
Naomi Pohl, Deputy General Secretary of the Musicians Union [MU], said: “Most of our members are self-employed and many are being penalised for taking time off to recover from giving birth and care for their baby. The current SEISS scheme discriminates against self-employed women, simply for starting a family. The MU fully supports this legal case in the hope that self-employed mothers will be treated equally and fairly.”
Jen Downer is hoping that the case is successful. “Using my average earnings over the stipulated three-year period means that my grant has been based on approximately half of what my actual current earning would have been,” she says.