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NHS loses student midwives' bursary appeal

31 March 2006

The Court of Appeal has upheld the sex discrimination claim of three student midwives who had their bursary payments cut when they took time off from training to have their babies.

At an employment appeal tribunal in January 2005, Clare Fletcher, Shelley Wilkinson and Tracey Parkes won a ground-breaking right to have their bursaries continued despite taking a break from their course due to maternity leave. The National Health Service appealed and a hearing began on Tuesday, but the appeal was dismissed the following day.

The midwives' case was supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

The EOC says the outcome has far-reaching implications for student trainees across the country – not just midwives – who were on similar bursary schemes and face similar sex discrimination.

Ms Fletcher and Ms Wilkinson had their bursary payments stopped completely when they took maternity leave, while Ms Parkes continued her training during what should have been her maternity leave for fear of losing out on much-needed income.

The NHS argued that the trainees were not "employees" or "workers" and, therefore, were not entitled to maternity pay. However, the EAT ruled that the claimants were clearly deprived of financial support at a time when the assistance was most needed by them, and that the suspension of bursary payments amounted to sex discrimination.

In the year since the EAT's decision the NHS put in place an interim arrangement allowing all NHS trainees (not just trainee midwives) in England who need temporary leave due to pregnancy or childbirth to have their bursaries continued for a period of up to 45 weeks. At this week's hearing, the court commented that this interim arrangement was a sensible way to address the needs of pregnant trainees that arise in the health sector. The interim arrangements have already benefited 400 women.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: "This is a victory for vocational trainees around the country. It is ironic that student midwives, who provide such vital support for new mothers and their babies, were denied financial support at a time when they themselves most needed it."

She added: "At a time when the government is working hard to help deliver more support for new mothers through the Work and Families Bill, the NHS needs to face up to the problems posed by bursaries and training schemes that disadvantage women."