Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Gavin Robinson Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:03 a.m.

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.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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5 Oct 2020, 5:19 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In commencing my contribution to this debate, I pay wholehearted tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and indeed to other members of the Petitions Committee. It is rather extraordinary that the Petitions Committee had an inquiry at all; it is not a common thing for it to do. However, I think that it reflects the strength of feeling for this petition among its signatories—almost a quarter of a million in total—and given the fact that Westminster Hall was not accepting e-petition debates, it was an incredibly powerful thing to do. I am glad that the Petitions Committee not only conducted the inquiry but produced a very robust and encouraging report, which was compelling to read, and made arguments that I have yet to hear substantive rebuttals of. So I thank the hon. Lady for that.

I have no doubt that the Minister who is present here in Westminster Hall today enjoyed the evidence session—I think it was rather robust—and I must say that I have found that he has personally engaged with this issue. However, I have not found the Government to be anything other than tone deaf to the genuine aspirations expressed by mothers, to the concerns expressed by mothers and the wider family circle, and to the imperative of supporting young mothers, young babies and their wider family at a time when we have all had difficulties. I am afraid to say that the Government response was wholly insufficient.

Aside from the contribution of the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), I think there is a general view in the debate that more can be done; the hon. Lady was not denying that, just the intended purpose of the petition. Given that we are potentially entering another period of restrictions within wider society—of lockdowns and circuit breakers— I ask that the Government accept today at least that this issue has not gone away. The pressures that have manifested themselves in huge levels of public support for the e-petition and in the contributions that we have made in Parliament through the Committee’s report and through the subsequent report in September show that this debate is not over.

The Government should accept that families—those in which someone is currently pregnant and those in which someone is in the early stages of maternity leave—are still looking for the Government, who have heard that further work on support for the job support scheme and other measures that that can be taken to support individuals throughout society are needed, to acknowledge that mothers and families still remain in a difficult space. Health visitors, no matter how hard those professionals have tried to respond to the needs of those under their care, are still not providing the best support that they would wish to give. They are still relying on online engagement and Zoom calls, when face-to-face contact and getting to see mother, baby and the wider surroundings within the family setting are so crucial, yet it is all still constrained.

I was pleased to ask the Prime Minister on 23 July when the Government intended to respond to the Petitions Committee inquiry. The Prime Minister said he remembered Bethany from Crewe very well and he indicated that he would consider the report and its contents. I do not think anyone who surveyed the evidence in the Hansard transcripts of the Liaison Committee could believe that there was appropriate consideration of the 23 recommendations. That time has not passed; the opportunity still remains. In the name of the 638 members of my constituency who signed the petition and the hundreds of thousands of people throughout this country, I hope the Government will respond.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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5 Oct 2020, 5:19 p.m.

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.