Lord True (Con)
My Lords, it is a privilege to respond to the debate, which I have listened to intently and with deep consideration for what everybody has said. If I may be allowed a personal comment, I too was moved by what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, because the reason there were seven years between my late brother and me was that my mother was one of the women to whom he referred and, of course, never forgot that. In my life, I have tried to follow the example of that remarkable woman. Part of that example was always that you should listen to the other person and that bullying and hatred have no place in personal life or public life. I echo very strongly what the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said on that in her intervention. No one should have fear in expressing any view. We have heard contrary views in this debate—although there has been an overwhelming voice on one side, we have heard countervailing voices—and I assure the House that I respect all those.
I thank everybody who has taken part. The contributions have been insightful if, from the Government’s point of view, sometimes challenging. I have rarely heard the House so unanimous, or near unanimous, in its expression of concern on the two main points that have come out of the debate: first, what we do next in broadening the work, which I spoke about in opening; and, secondly, the issue of language, on which many have spoken.
Before I come to that, I shall answer some of the other points raised in the debate. We could begin on one point on which I think we are all agreed: although the Bill is specific and limited, it is a significant reforming measure for women and points the way to wider reform. I welcome that that has been recognised by most of those who spoke. The Bill makes an important and long-overdue change to existing law by for the first time enabling senior Ministers to take paid maternity leave. The prior situation—that such a woman had to resign—was unacceptable and, frankly, shameful in the 21st century.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for her heartfelt contribution at the outset of the debate. The very fact that she has tabled an amendment demonstrates her feeling on the subject. If she and other noble Lords will permit, I will address some of the other concerns first and come to the language later in this speech.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her support for the Bill. She rightly highlighted the past injustice of women having to make a choice between having children and pursuing a career. That is entirely wrong. It is why the Bill and what I hope will follow are so important. The Government acknowledge that the Bill does not resolve wider issues, and we will present a report to Parliament. I shall say more about that later, setting out considerations and proposals.
I turn to some other points raised in the course of the debate. On the constitutional aspects of the Bill, particularly the royal prerogative and how the Bill operates in that space, several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Lord Hain and Lord Pannick, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hussein-Ece, Lady Grey-Thompson, Lady Jones and Lady Hayman, asked why the Bill does not grant a right to maternity leave and why it remains within the Prime Minister’s discretion to appoint a Minister as a Minister on leave. As my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General said in the other place during the Bill’s passage, Ministers are not employees and therefore do not enjoy employment rights. They are officeholders appointed by the sovereign on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day. The Bill is careful to ensure that the arrangements put in place to allow Ministers to take maternity leave do not interfere with that prerogative in relation to the appointment of Ministers.
Noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Grey-Thompson, and many others, said that while the Bill is welcome, it does not go far enough. I agree, as I said in my opening speech and just now. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the Bill does not resolve wider issues such as ministerial adoption and parental leave, absences for sickness and other measures—we heard about some in the debate—or unpaid roles and that we should proceed to consider them too. I will come to that in more detail later.
Noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, also raised maternity provision for Members of the other place. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work as part of the APPG on Women in Parliament, which advocated paid cover for Ministers in 2014. In respect of Members of Parliament, it is a matter for IPSA, which is entirely independent of the Government, and for Parliament itself. I note and welcome the fact that IPSA has launched a consultation on funding for MP parental leave cover and I encourage all those with an interest to make their views known to IPSA.
Others raised wider issues affecting pregnant women across the country. That was the gravamen of the wind-up speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, whom I welcome to her position on the Front Bench opposite. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is already unlawful, but the Government have recognised that pregnant women and new mothers continue to face challenges in the workplace. They have consulted on this issue previously and published their response in the summer of 2019. We are looking to bring forward reforms to the current statutory framework, as was committed to in our manifesto. It will provide security for expecting and new mothers, and flexibility for employers.
I thank noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Bourne, for their advocacy on behalf of unpaid Ministers in your Lordships’ House. I recognise that this is an issue, and, understandably, a number of noble Lords feel strongly about it. I am happy to confirm that the Written Ministerial Statement laid by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister specifically envisages the use of unpaid roles as being within the scope of further work that the Government have committed to, following the Bill. The Government will present a report to Parliament setting out considerations on this matter, alongside the other matters that I have explained. I paid careful attention to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Bourne and others, and I hope to be able to update my noble friend and the House on the progress of that work by the Summer Recess, as was stated by my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General in the other place.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, who made a powerful speech, and others for their points on equalities impact assessments. It is absolutely right that the Government should give proper consideration to the equalities impacts of a policy underlying any legislation. Although the provisions of this Bill are of narrow scope, they apply to all ministerial offices and the opposition officeholders who are paid under the ministerial salary legislation to allow for maternity leave. This means that, for those women who are Ministers or are considering accepting appointment to ministerial office, there is now less of an impediment or barrier to doing so when considering starting a family at the same time. This improves equality and removes an injustice. It is part of the wider work that I have referred to before, which will look at, among other things, parental leave, adoption leave and the position of people in public life who are not Ministers. The Government have undertaken that, as part of that, they will take into account the equalities issues. The starting point will be to consider the impacts of the current legislation, as well as work from relevant Select Committees.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, raised the Law Officers Act 1997. He is of course right to say that, by virtue of that Act, which he helped steward through Parliament, the functions of the Attorney-General can be exercised by the Solicitor-General. That provides important flexibility on a day-to-day basis. However, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will recognise that that is not a solution for a planned and ongoing leave of absence.
In addition, the office of Attorney-General, as chief law officer for England and Wales and chief legal adviser to the Crown, is an important part of our constitution. Advice on the most serious and sensitive issues is provided to the Cabinet by the Attorney-General, who attends Cabinet. In those circumstances, it is not about the possibility of the Solicitor-General deputising but about ensuring that there is clarity about who discharges the role of Attorney-General.
I would now like to address the concerns raised in the other place and so strongly and repeatedly in this House today regarding the language used in this legislation. In the debate, almost all noble Lords raised the fact that the Bill refers to “persons”, rather than “women”, who are pregnant. What others see as neutral language, many of your Lordships have perceived as rejecting the special role of women in childbirth. Questions have been raised about whether this is the application of extreme gender ideology. It is not. The overriding drafting principle for all legislation is that we must create the legal conditions to deliver the policy intent.
I will address the specific issues directly and hope to be able to give the House some reassurance, but it is important to disentangle the broader issue of non-specific language on the one hand and how it is perceived and operates in the Bill. I submit that few would want to go back to the situation before 2007, when, for example, “he” was regularly used in legislation to embrace women. That, as many have argued, was seen as demeaning. The changes introduced by the then Labour Government and supported by successive Governments of all parties have sought to avoid gender-specific pronouns and usages when drafting legislation. Whatever the concerns expressed in this debate—I heard them and will come to them—I have not heard any call for the wholesale overthrow of the inclusive drafting conventions used since 2007. The Government continue to believe that that change was right.
I will come to the specific context of the language of this Bill. However, the Government do not—this reflects our discussions with the Official Opposition—propose to amend this Bill, for several reasons. First, the specific circumstances of the Attorney-General’s pregnancy mean that there is some urgency to secure Royal Assent to allow her to go on maternity leave. Secondly, in that context, the current drafting achieves its purpose in legal clarity and certainty.
As I said in opening, the Government have committed to return to the House with a report on furthering the reform begun in this Bill, looking into wider issues including adoption and parental leave, sickness and unpaid roles. If that review leads to this Bill being revisited, the way it is now constructed will facilitate further additions for other forms of ministerial leave.
The Bill is legally accurate and will allow women to take maternity leave. To disturb that by amendment now might lead to unfortunate delay or unintended confusion in drafting. I acknowledge, having heard the debate, that this is not a satisfactory position for this House, but we will return to these matters in due course.
Although the drafting of this Bill in the context of maternity has been criticised by many, I repeat that it was neither novel nor intended in any way to denigrate women. I and the Government have heard today the concerns of both Houses on the “erasure of women” from public discourse and legislation. It is not intended to do this. The overriding drafting principle is that we must meet the legal requirements to deliver policy intent. The use of “person” in relation to pregnancy or childbirth matters in legislation is in line with current drafting convention and guidance, but, having heard the debate today, I will make the following points in reassurance.
First, I repeat that it will continue to be this Government’s policy to refer to pregnant women in government publications. That point has been made very strongly by many who spoke. Secondly, the Government have already responded to concerns that this drafting could be misinterpreted, and have updated the Explanatory Notes, which now detail how the Bill is intended to support women and explain the drafting practice.
The Government recognise the continuing strength of feeling on this issue in both this House and the other place. We are clear that the drafting is accurate and effective, but we recognise the concern expressed today that meeting legal requirements in drafting legislation does not mean that there is only one drafting approach available. In addition to committing to make myself available to noble Lords who may wish to discuss this matter further before Committee—I express my gratitude to those noble Lords who have taken the time and engagement so far to enter into discussions with the Government and me—I also state that the Government are open to further discussions on this issue. I will reflect with colleagues whether we can commit to doing more on this wider issue as we approach the later stages of this Bill.
Following my undertakings on this, many noble Lords expressed a wish to see reform go further to resolve wider issues around ministerial parental leave. The Government acknowledge that the Bill does not resolve these wider issues. That is why we have committed to further consideration. These are complex issues which require careful further consideration, taking into account modern working practices and the wider constitutional context. While respecting the independence of IPSA, the Government will present a report to Parliament setting out considerations and proposals.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the Government’s work will consider how the issues are resolved in other contexts, including for MPs, other officeholders, workers and employees, to draw up proposals for how they can be made to work in the context of ministerial office.
I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that as part of this work, the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to consult with the leader of the Opposition on the development of the proposals in advance of publication. The Government will continue the work following passage of this legislation with a view to laying the report before Parliament as soon as is practicable, and will in any event update Parliament before the Summer Recess.
I hope that I have been able to address some of the issues raised by noble Lords, including those raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes and others throughout this debate. I urge her to consider withdrawing her amendment, and repeat my offer to have further engagement between now and the next stages.
The Government agree that Parliament and Government should seek to lead from the front on working practices, providing as much flexibility as possible to officeholders to aid the effective discharge of their duties. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out in his Written Statement on this topic two weeks ago, the Government have undertaken to look into considerations and proposals, both in the round and in detail.
Returning to the essential, this Bill will end the unacceptable situation where a pregnant woman would have to resign from Cabinet to recover from childbirth and care for her new-born child. For this reason and for the reasons outlined above, I again beg to move that the Bill be read a second time, and urge my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.