Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Claire HannaMain Page: Claire Hanna (Social Democratic & Labour Party - Belfast South)
(1 month, 3 weeks ago)Westminster Hall
Welcome to the first sitting of Westminster Hall under these very unusual and temporary arrangements. I hardly need remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. As I look around, the Room is a picture of perfection—nobody is less than 2 metres away from anyone else. I ask hon. Members to sanitise microphones before using them and to respect the one-way system for moving around the Room. You will find in front of you a diagram that explains by colours where we are—it is self-explanatory.
Only Members who are sitting on the horseshoe may speak. That is because of microphones and so on, but it also helps us to keep the numbers in the Room manageable. Members may speak only if they are on the call lists. That applies even if debates are undersubscribed, although this debate is not. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups, because those in the latter stages of the call list, who will use the seats in the Public Gallery, need to move on to the horseshoe when seats become available. At the moment, you are all perfectly spaced and able to speak from where you are.
I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the following two speeches once they have already spoken. That does not mean that they can abuse the system by popping in and out again, which will be frowned upon, but obviously, we have to have that rule if we want to move people around in an oversubscribed debate so that some can leave and others can come in. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent the Members in the Public Gallery from moving to the horseshoe. Does anyone have any reasonable questions about procedure before we properly begin?
Break in Debate
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the Petitions Committee for its excellent report, the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for their contributions to securing the debate, and all the organisations that gave evidence towards the report, especially Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action.
Parents have faced extraordinary challenges, and none more so than new parents during the pandemic. I would like to comment briefly on three issues raised in the report and its recommendations. It certainly was good to hear the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge reminding us all what it is like to be a new mother or father and the uncertainty that we all face at that time. The lack of access to family members—often mum, who is really good at being there at that time—has been very difficult indeed. We are still waiting for my niece to give birth to her first child, another baby conceived and born in the pandemic period.
The first specific issue in the report that I would like to look at is childcare. Members know that one of the most challenging things for our constituents was trying to balance work with looking after their children, when often their childcare provider was not able to provide them with the childcare that they needed, although obviously many nurseries were open for frontline workers and we applaud them for that. I also applaud the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Minister in charge of childcare, for the work that they clearly did to ensure that the system continued to work even in these very difficult circumstances. I am thinking particularly of the report’s recommendations 19 and 20, which include a call for a review of funding and of lessons learned. There is always a place for learning lessons, and clearly it has been very frustrating for parents to have to try to balance everything without the childcare that they have come to rely on, but I would like to place it on the record that I think that the Ministers have done an amazing job to ensure that free hours have continued to be available for two, three and four-year-olds, that the funding was there even when settings were closed, and that more than £3 billion continues to be spent on nursery provision. I hope that all local authorities are doing what they need to do to ensure that that childcare is secure for the future.
When we look at other areas, particularly the way in which businesses have dealt with the issue, we see a less rosy story. Employers have found it even more challenging than ever to stay within the law regarding their treatment of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. The Government are absolutely clear; when I raised the matter with the Secretary of State in May, he said at the Dispatch Box that
“expectant mothers are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if a suitable role cannot be found within the workplace.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 159.]
Unfortunately, too many businesses failed to hear that or decided not to correctly interpret it, leaving too many women either being incorrectly put on sick pay or starting maternity leave earlier. We know that more women have already been made redundant in the pandemic than men, and that mothers are at much higher risk than fathers of being made redundant from this point on.
Recommendation 4 in the Committee’s report calls for
“clear guidance for employers on their obligations in respect of pregnant women who cannot safely socially distance at work”,
reiterating that women have a legal right to full pay. I fully support that recommendation—albeit that businesses should know that already.
Thirdly, we need better protection for pregnant women in the first place. I have to slightly disagree with the report here, because recommendation 21 calls for bringing in the Government’s recommendations on improving maternity leave. Well, I do not think that the Government’s recommendations are where they should be. I urge the Committee to look at my Bill, the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, which would bring in protections very similar to those already in place in Germany to ensure that while women are pregnant, and up to six months after they return from pregnancy, they cannot be made redundant in the first place. Too many women—around 50,000 a year, we think—leave their jobs when they are pregnant, just because they are pregnant. A sharp warning bell has to be sent to the Government, whose own research I am citing, that the law as it stands is not working and needs to change.