Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Gavin RobinsonMain Page: Gavin Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party - Belfast East)
(3 months, 2 weeks ago)Westminster Hall
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that nobody will take that advice as a reason to have a go at me—but if they do, they do.
I am delighted to participate in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for initiating it. I want to raise just three points, and I do so in the spirit of asking the Minister to look again to make sure that we are doing everything possible to ensure that everything works extremely well.
The first point relates to childcare. I fully accept that childcare is desperately important to ensure that there is the opportunity for people on maternity or paternity leave to go back to work. I fully accept that, but I pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton): it is very important for the children themselves. I, too, have come across children who were born during or just before the lockdown period, but who have been immersed in lockdown, who find it really difficult to engage not just with other children, but with anyone outside their immediate family. That is such a sad thing to experience. I am not quite sure what the answer is, except to build in flexibility and make sure that we have the right sort of understanding people running nurseries.
The second group of people that I ask the Minister to look at, to see whether we are doing the right thing for them, is the self-employed. There are a large number of self-employed people here in the UK, but we know that there are certain things that we have not done right. Can it be right that just under half of self-employed people have had to give up a place at nursery in order to carry on making a living? Can it be right that we ask the self-employed to take into account things that other people, particularly those who are employed, do not have to take into account?
My final point is about those people who are employed. I know that the Minister or one of his associates has raised the question of how companies deal with people who are on maternity or paternity leave. However, as many speakers have suggested, it is still an area that is open to abuse. For example, we still see a large number of suspensions being done on incorrect terms. We also still see a large number of people who are employed in unsafe conditions. I wonder whether it is worth our getting together a group of leaders in this field to make sure that the key messages that we want to get across are really understood and communicated across companies, so that they do things in the right way. We are not asking for anything special, but we are asking that things be done in the right way.
It is good to be back, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate.
The Government’s response to the petition so far has been disappointing. Far too many new parents have felt completely unsupported through what should be a time to bond with their newborn child. I urge Ministers to reconsider their response and extend parental leave and pay for families during the pandemic. The Government claim that the UK is among the most generous countries in the world in terms of parental leave. In practice, that is untrue. In fact, in UNICEF’s ranking of family-friendly policies, the UK ranked only 34 out of 41 OECD countries. As highlighted in the Petitions Committee’s report, the unpaid section of parental leave is simply unaffordable for many parents. As always, it is those who are already more disadvantaged who lose out.
The issue is not only about the generosity of parental leave in the UK. We should have that discussion because it clearly deserves our attention, and we can do a lot better, but today the Government need to consider the impact that the loss of access to vital services, including health visitors, has had on families during covid. That leads me to the subject of mental health. The first 12 months are vital for a new baby. There is an enormous amount of physical and also emotional development. Undiagnosed mental health problems in parents can have significant long-lasting consequences for a newborn child. I speak as the chair of the all-party group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences. It is crucial that we understand what can affect a child’s health from the start and take a trauma-informed approach to building back from the pandemic. Depression before, during and after birth is a serious condition. It can go unrecognised and untreated for nearly half of new mothers who suffer from it. That was the case before the pandemic, and my all-party group has recommended an extension of the six-week mental health check for new mums.
One problem is the narrative that motherhood is only wonderful, which leaves many women feeling unable to talk to health professionals about their emotional state. In my own pregnancies and births a long time ago now, I remember I did not dare to say that I felt rubbish, because it is often very difficult to cope. That was true before the pandemic and it was true many years ago. Covid has created additional challenges. Some 68% of new parents have said that their ability to cope with pregnancy or caring for their baby has been affected by lockdown restrictions. Not only has informal support from friends and family been much more difficult—we have heard many examples in this debate already—but formal services have been cut down, too. In the long term, we need to ensure that mental health checks for mothers take place across England and Wales. I also support the call for the Government to fund and provide additional targeted mental health support. They should certainly provide more funding to increase the number of health visitors. Again, I remember that the health visitor was a lifeline. Such contact is so important for new mums. All that is necessary if we are to avoid a lost generation because of the covid pandemic.