Can an employer reject an application from a candidate who is currently on maternity leave and would not start the new role until the end of their leave period?

No. A failure to appoint a job applicant to a new role on the ground that they are on maternity leave constitutes pregnancy and maternity discrimination contrary to the Equality Act 2010.

Under the Act, pregnant women and women on maternity leave do not need a comparator to establish that they have been discriminated against. Unfavourable treatment of a woman regarding access to employment because they are on maternity leave would amount to an act of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The employer should therefore consider employing temporary maternity leave cover until the job applicant is available to take up the position.