Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Dan Carden Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
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.

Dan Carden Portrait Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

It is a delight to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, and to see you back in the Chair in Westminster Hall, Madam Deputy Speaker. As others have done, I start by thanking Jessie Zammit and her husband James for starting this e-petition, and the 226,000 people who signed it. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) who, as others pointed out, took this issue forward and delivered a really important report. Beyond today, I hope the Government will take far more seriously the issues in the report and give us a much better indication of additional support for parents and families, as we head into what will, no doubt, be an even harder winter with coronavirus.

I briefly thank all Members, particularly those from the Opposition, for their contributions. We heard excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Newcastle upon Tyne North, for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).

Even before the pandemic struck, the system of support did not work as it should. There are too many inconsistencies in the support provided to employed and self-employed parents—or biological and adoptive parents, as we heard—causing some to miss out on vital support that is incredibly important at that time in their lives. The existing flaws have been exacerbated by covid-19, leaving many families in hardship and struggling. The Government’s response to the petition and subsequent report acknowledges that we are living through unprecedented times, but it does little more than express satisfaction with maternity and paternity support as it was before. The number of signatories to the petition speaks to the importance of parents’ and children’s wellbeing at this time, and to a real frustration with the inadequacy of the current provisions and the Government’s failure to provide sufficient additional support in the light of the pandemic.

The Petitions Committee’s report explains why the Government’s claim to provide among the most generous maternity support in the world is quite simply untrue, and why it is challenged by UNICEF, as has been mentioned. The report calls on the Government to capture data on the uptake of parental leave, as well as pay, so that any future review of parental leave arrangements can consider the extent to which parents from all groups are able to use their entitlements, and whether to extend leave or provide hardship grants in the light of that evidence. The Minister should take on board that important call. The UK has seen rapid growth in self-employment in recent decades, so it is of great concern that significant disparities exist between employed and self-employed women. Self-employed women already face additional challenges and reduced incomes after having children. If both parents are self-employed, only the mother can claim an allowance and there is no paternity or shared leave for fathers, which means that caring responsibilities fall to the mother. The entitlements available to self-employed women compound rather than address that inequality. Unlike statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance is treated as unearned income and deducted from universal credit, sometimes leaving women up to £5,000 worse off. Can the Minister give any justification for that unfair discrepancy? I call on him to set out how the Government will address it.

That is just one of the many inequalities in entitlement brought about by an inconsistent welfare system, combined with an increase in precarious work. The Government have pursued an agenda of creating a deregulated gig economy, rolling back workers’ rights and fostering insecurity in work, which has left us in the worst possible position as we now face the devastation wreaked on the economy by coronavirus.

Following the announcement by the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer in March that pregnant women are clinically vulnerable, employers that were unable to make the necessary adjustments to ensure workplace safety were required to send them home on full pay, but many pregnant women were unlawfully put on statutory sick pay, which affected their maternity pay and other entitlements. Labour has previously called on the Government to discount covid-related spells on SSP for the period when earnings are used to calculate statutory maternity pay to ensure that pregnant women do not have their maternity pay cut as a result of being on SSP. It is unacceptable that the Government have refused to do that, and I ask the Minister to reconsider.

In fact, the Minister said that the women affected should simply bring an employment tribunal claim against their employer, despite knowing that that is not a realistic option, given the small window of opportunity for doing so and the huge and growing backlog in employment tribunal cases. Citizens Advice says that its advisers are seeing worrying cases of pregnant women who feel that they have been selected for redundancy because they need more stringent health and safety measures, and demand for the organisation’s discrimination advice page has increased fourfold.

I echo the report’s recommendation that the Government should consider extending to six months the period in which pregnant women and new parents can bring claims before the employment tribunal. Last week, the Ministry of Justice published new figures blaming the 31% rise in outstanding employment tribunal cases on an increase in unemployment because of covid-19. It also warned the Government that the decision to end the job retention scheme and replace it with a job support scheme will lead to a further spike at the end of October.

Given that one in four people are already living under regional lockdowns, and that a second national lockdown is a very real possibility, the issues highlighted by the petition, the report and this debate will not go away. It is not acceptable for the Government simply to restate that the support available is generous and sufficient. The evidence submitted to the Petitions Committee inquiry shows that that is not the case. Substantive ministerial action is needed and I call on the Minister to set out what steps the Government intend to take, considering the problems facing pregnant women and new parents that hon. Members have detailed today. It is simply unfair that too many have lost their leave during this period of lockdown, so the Government should look to what action can be taken. The issues raised here will not simply be dealt with in this debate; they require action from the Government.

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee on bringing forward this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on the way she has conducted it and reflected the campaign of the many petitioners. As she knows, I sat on the Petitions Committee for a number of years, so I know from personal experience how important and valuable it is.

I am sure we can agree that this has been an interesting and informative debate. I am grateful to everybody who has contributed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) both have previous experience that showed up in their comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) always speaks with common sense, and the rational and reasonable thinking with which he cut through these issues was very welcome. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) has not been in this place for long, I think she has a great future ahead of her. The professional approach and experience that she brought to bear made hers a particularly insightful and welcome contribution.

The online petition asked the Government to extend maternity pay because of concerns about the lack of opportunities for parents, and mothers in particular, throughout the lockdown. Petitioners pointed out the activities, such as baby groups, which could not occur during the lockdown, and how vital they are for children’s development. We have heard a lot about that in this debate. As a father, I know how important social contact is with family, friends and other new parents. It has been quite a while since my children were in their first months and years—they are now in their 20s—but I do vaguely remember those days a couple of decades ago, and just how important such contact is. It provides invaluable support at times of significant change, and I sympathise with new mothers and parents who have been unable to spend their parental leave in the way they envisaged prior to the pandemic and lockdown.

I recognise that new parents want to give their children the best possible start in life; it is what we all want, and I wholeheartedly agree that activities that support babies’ development in those early months and years are so, so important. We are all social creatures, including from a very young age, and social contact is important at all stages. Obviously, since that initial period of lockdown, we have tried our best to relax the social distancing rules that were previously in place. There have been stricter measures, yes, in some local areas as required, but as a result of those relaxations, including the introduction of support bubbles, more new parents are now able to spend time with family, friends and other new parents, while still respecting the social distancing rules.

The online petition that prompted the Petitions Committee’s inquiry and this debate asked for paid maternity leave to be extended by three months in the light of covid-19. As hon. Members have heard, the Government have not accepted the proposal. Maternity leave is provided to enable employed pregnant women and new mothers to prepare for and recover from birth, and to bond with their child, including through breastfeeding if the mother wishes to breastfeed. Up to 52 weeks of maternity leave are available, 39 weeks of which are paid, and all employed women must take at least two weeks’ maternity leave immediately after giving birth, or four weeks if they work in a factory.

Fathers and partners can take up to two weeks of paid paternity leave. They can also access up to an additional 50 weeks of leave, and up to an additional 37 weeks of pay where the mother does not intend to use her full maternity entitlement. Employed parents also have access to up to four weeks’ unpaid parental leave, and that is per parent, per child, so a couple that wishes to take additional time off work with their baby have access to an additional eight weeks of leave per year, and more if they have other children. I know that this leave is not paid, but it is also the case that all employees have access to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday in a year. The entitlement to annual leave continues to accrue while a parent is off work on parental leave.

We have talked a lot in this debate about the data and international comparisons. It is important to look at the fact that our maternity leave, rather than the parental leave that some people suggested, which is a day one right, is one of the most generous in the OECD. When looking at the time, as compared to the money per week and per month, there are other countries that have a shorter period. Although more money may be paid, often that is combined with social insurance and is therefore dependent on the contributions that the employers and employees have already paid.