While you are on maternity leave, your employer is changing your terms and conditions of employment. If an employer wants to change an employee’s employment terms then they must formally consult with you. Your boss contacted you, but it is not clear whether this was just a chat or whether he has formalised this. Either way, this is quite a fundamental change in your contract particularly as the increased distance prevents you using the childcare facilities provided by your employer.
Your question does not state whether the men you work with do the same job as you. If one or all of them do, and yet your role is the only one being moved then you might have a legal case for sex discrimination since your employer would be treating you less favourably than men doing the same job.
Even if the roles of your male colleagues are different from yours, is there any reason given on why your role was moved? Was it to be nearer clients or some practical business reason? Or is it to try and make it difficult for you to return to work after your maternity leave?
In terms of requesting flexible working, legally, an employee is entitled to apply for a change in their working arrangements under the right to Request Flexible Working regulations. These changes, if agreed, would become a permanent arrangement and would become part of your employment contract. So I would suggest that the HR policy is not following minimum legal requirements by stating that this would only last 3 months.
Providing that you follow the appropriate procedure when putting forward your Request to work flexibly (either the statutory guidelines or those set out within your company’s Handbook if one is available), your employer must seriously consider your request and offer you the opportunity to put your case forward in person accordingly.
After meeting with you to discuss it further, an employer can refuse a request for flexible working if they can demonstrate: an inability to rearrange work among existing staff; the burden of additional costs; detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand; inability to recruit additional staff or a detrimental impact on quality or performance. So requesting a change in your working arrangements is not a guarantee that it will be agreed by your employer but they would need to have good business reasons why they declined it.
You asked about returning maternity leave monies if you decide not to return. You would not need to return any statutory matenity pay. However, some companies pay enhanced maternity payments to employees over and above the statutory minimum. If this is the case and it states in your Company Handbook that repayment is required if you do not return from maternity leave then you would need to pay this.
Overall, it sounds like you need to have some further discussions with your employer and HR department (if there is one at your company). You need to understand more why your role is being moved and not the others on your site. You also need to discuss the flexible working since you are entitled to request a permanent change rather than it being for a limited period. Depending on the outcome to these discussions and the outcome of your request for flexible working you might want to seek advice from a solicitor to see if you might have a claim for discrimination or breach of contract.
All the best with this!
While every care has been taken in compiling this answer, WorkingMums cannot be held responsible for any errors or ommissions. This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific legal advice.