Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:13 a.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact of covid-19 on maternity and paternity leave. As many hon. Members will know, and as we have heard today, being a new parent is an exciting, scary and, of course, tiring experience—it is rather like being a new Member in this place. Being new parents is a challenge at the best of times, when they have the support of extended family, can attend baby groups and can leave their homes when they please, but having a newborn baby in the middle of a lockdown means that all those challenges are multiplied. That is why Ministers need to recognise the unprecedented experience of those who have become parents during the pandemic.

We have seen various offers and support schemes, but those on parental leave have had no such offers—it is time that we did something about that. As we know, in the time that we have waited to debate the petition—I am very pleased that Westminster Hall debates are back—many of the affected parents have had their maternity or paternity leave pass them by, and they are now grappling with the challenges of childcare during a pandemic. Some of those who have contacted me have had very supportive employers, and that is welcome, but it is not guaranteed. I have heard from other constituents who have not been able to access childcare and who have to consider whether they can return to their jobs at all. Others have had no choice but to take unpaid leave. The Government have previously suggested furlough as an option for people who cannot secure childcare. Personally, I do not think that is the right answer at all. When the Prime Minister said that he would expect employers to be reasonable in such circumstances and that that would be sufficient, it betrayed his lack of understanding about the reality of workplace discrimination.

People who have returned to work have experienced a significant portion of their maternity leave during the national lockdown. The possibility of seeing extended family and friends and attending covid-secure baby groups has opened up, but there are no guarantees. As we have already heard, it is very unlikely that those things will be able to continue in the way we would want. With localised lockdowns, inter-house mixing has been prohibited for many people, and we can see how that affects them on a day-to-day basis. A comment that I received from a constituent has really stuck with me. She said:

“Some days are so difficult. I’ve barely slept, the house is a mess and there is a huge pile of washing to be done. All I need is my mum to come round and hold my son whilst I do this.”

Simple and helpful small interactions often make all the difference.

Baby groups and support from family and friends not only benefit new parents; they are vital for the development of new babies, who look to interact and form new bonds. There will be babies who have had contact only with their parents and not with other babies, and they will take time to adapt to new childcare settings. Even the thought of that—never mind actually doing it—is quite a traumatic experience for parents and their babies. As we have discussed, we know the impact that the early years can have on the rest of a child’s development.

Women who have given birth during the pandemic, and those who are pregnant at present, continue to contend with restrictions on attendance at scans and medical appointments and on access to services. I have heard from constituents who felt a void because they could not see their health visitor in person, and who have been left in pain and distress because they have been unable to receive support from breastfeeding services.

Maternity leave should offer new parents the opportunity to recover from birth and time to adapt to the challenges of a newborn. New parents face having to catch up on missed appointments at the same time as returning to work, and that has many practical implications. The discrimination facing women who are on maternity leave, or who are returning from it, is well documented. As we have heard today, those difficulties are exacerbated in the worst of times. We know it is not business as usual at the moment, so why should it be business as usual for maternity and paternity leave? We should have some changes before it is too late.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

My thanks go to the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the debate. I thank Bethany and the maternity petitioners, Maternity Action, Pregnant Then Screwed and everybody who has been trying to help people at this incredibly difficult time.

This issue has had an impact on my family. My sister-in-law Suzanne had baby Fraser during lockdown—I understand that they may be watching the debate at home. Like all parents, they have been doing their absolute best in the most difficult of circumstances, and we are all so very proud of everything that they have done so far. However, it does not have to be this hard. If the Government took on some of the recommendations made by the Petitions Committee in its report, it would certainly make it a good deal easier for many parents and families right around the UK to look after their wee ones. It would make things just that wee bit easier at this very difficult time.

I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities. Over the past five years we have seen a worsening of an already precarious situation, with underfunded services, a patchwork of local support and volunteer groups doing their best—with very few resources—to support people when they are breastfeeding.

A report by Dr Natalie Shenker and Professor Amy Brown, which came out in the past few days, deals with this issue. They surveyed over 1,200 mothers who breastfed during the pandemic to see how they were affected by lockdown. Around 40% of the mothers said it had been a positive experience, because they valued the privacy and the time at home—perhaps having a supportive partner there, and perhaps getting a wee bit of extra time to do things. However, around 30% of the mothers surveyed felt that lockdown had been incredibly negative and incredibly difficult for them. They had felt isolated, abandoned and overwhelmed by the intensity of being alone with a baby for such a long time.

Although many of those mothers were able to breastfeed through that, many were not, and they struggled and gave up before they wanted to. The survey found that of the participants who had stopped breastfeeding, only 13.5% described themselves as ready to do so; they had given up before they had wanted to. Others had introduced formula when they had not intended to; the figure was 68.7%, with many of those doing so earlier than they had planned to. A staggering 70.3% attributed their decision to stop breastfeeding to the lack of face-to-face support. Some of that has been because of the lockdown and the restrictions, but the Government could have put a lot more in place to make the situation easier.

The National Breastfeeding Helpline has done incredible work, through its volunteers, to try to help and support people, but with some problems, people really need someone standing next to them to help them when they are feeding a baby. The Government need to do a lot more to resolve the issues of underfunding and the issues around health visitors, which have meant that people have felt very alone and scared when they have been on their own with a baby for a long period.

The situation has worsened existing inequalities within the system. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, people in poverty, people in small flats with no gardens and people with less educational attainment all found it more difficult to pursue breastfeeding when they really wanted to. I ask the Minister to look at these issues very carefully and see what more can be done to help and support people, not only now but in the future. Funding must go into these services.

Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP)
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5 Oct 2020, 5:36 p.m.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I begin by thanking colleagues for their contributions, the petitioners for creating the petition in the first place and, in particular, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for the work of her Committee in bringing this issue to the House today. We should not underestimate the impact that the issue has on so many people. It was really encouraging to see so many sharing their experiences in record numbers with the inquiry.

Few issues can be more important to society than how we look after the health and wellbeing of pregnant women, new parents and newborn children, so it is great to see this matter prioritised on the first day back in Westminster Hall. It is a great pity that the UK Government’s response to the recommendations has so far been more of a shrug of the shoulders than a helping hand. I very much hope that the Minister is here today with renewed vigour for taking action. Simply saying that our system is among the best and most generous in the world will not really cut it for those who are struggling financially. Maternity allowances here are far from generous. Indeed, UNICEF ranks the UK among the least family-friendly of the world’s richest countries. It is a worrying thought that, unbound by EU minimums, we may see that under threat.

The Government response to this report so far suggests that they either have not grasped or are not concerned about the extent of the impact of covid-19 on the lives and livelihoods of pregnant women and new parents. It should be an easy decision to extend maternity leave by three months, at the very least, to ensure that those who have unfairly lost income, lost leave rights and lost access to health and dentistry services, to baby groups and to family and childcare support are not disadvantaged even further.

It is safe to say that the Prime Minister is in the advantageous position of undoubtedly being able to enjoy the benefits of having a newborn baby around through this period. That certainly brings much joy in a period of difficulty. However, it would be difficult to argue that he shares the experience of those who are struggling with poverty, low wages, insecure work and loss of access to healthcare support, or those facing discriminatory attitudes from an employer. We have heard from other Members about those who have seen their roles downgraded on their return.

In a survey of almost 20,000 mothers and pregnant women by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, 46% of those who were being made redundant blamed the lack of childcare provision because of the covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of real experiences are summarised in this Committee report, which I hope will persuade the Minister of the need for a more sympathetic response as we look to move forward. So far, the Government have been sluggish in responding to the recommendations in the report, waiting until September before even coming out to say no to most of them. We know that they can rush to react when they want to. They did not, for example, drag their heels in any shape or form when it came to getting rid of procurement rules so that they could splash billions of pounds of public money giving questionable contracts to private companies of their choosing, regardless of evidence of ability to carry out the job.

However, when it comes to the relatively small and inexpensive fixes that would ensure fairness for pregnant women and new parents, the response is far slower. For example, making sure that guidance is clear for employers and employees would stop people struggling unnecessarily and would save on the need for costly, time-consuming tribunals. On 16 March, the Government announced that pregnant women at work were especially vulnerable, but they did nothing to make clear the legal obligations under existing health and safety rules—that, if alternative safe work or working from home could not be secured for those women, they should be suspended on full pay. Instead, many were wrongly forced on to sick pay or unpaid leave, or were forced to use up their holiday entitlement or start their maternity leave early, affecting entitlement to statutory maternity pay for many and reducing their maternity leave when they needed it most.

The Government could have prevented that, but they chose to leave those things in a murky mess, allowing pregnant women’s rights to be ignored with impunity. When I asked how many employers the Health and Safety Executive had investigated and taken enforcement action against since March for breaching obligations to pregnant women, the answer, unsurprisingly, was none.

The pandemic has been a wake-up call for so many. The Government have had the opportunity to respond to the detailed inquiry undertaken by the Petitions Committee. On 8 April, the Chancellor said:

“When you need it, when you fall on hard times, we will…be there for you.”

I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to prove through actions, not words, that they are there for new parents.