Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Justin Madders Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(9 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in such an important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the 337 people from my constituency of York Central who signed the petition, which aims to make things right for parents.

I want to put on the record how important it is to support women through their pregnancies. Will the Minister raise with colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care how essential it is that birthing partners and fathers are able to accompany the woman from pregnancy to birth—antenatal care, scans and hospital appointments—and for any care required after birth?

I will touch on two key issues. First, I thank the Petitions Committee for its report and its 23 recommendations, on which I want to reflect in the little time that I have. A constituent has written to me about neonatal care. She is a mother who gave birth 11 weeks early during the pandemic. That is so difficult, not least when her baby was moved to Middlesbrough, which is now in lockdown. She and her family need to be able to spend appropriate time to nurture and be with their baby. Bringing forward neonatal leave by two years would really assist her in that, and doing so now would help her even more. In the same way that the Government have moved at lightspeed to bring in so many measures during the pandemic, I ask that they bring in this important measure to support families in their time of need—April 2023 is too late.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and permanence, the second issue I want to look at is the current inequality between adoptive parents and birth parents. Will the Minister take another look at that inequality, not least in the Government’s response to the Petitions Committee report? We know, for instance, that self-employed adoptive parents are not entitled to an equivalent to the maternity allowance that self-employed mothers can access. They can ask the local authority for support, but they may not get it, and it is means-tested, unlike for birth parents. The 2016 independent review of self-employment in the UK highlighted that disadvantage, yet four years on, there has been no redress. I ask the Government: why?

Special guardians are currently not entitled to any form of parental leave or pay, yet they fulfil a crucial parental role. That creates real inequality: research shows that around half of kinship carers have to give up work to care for their children. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who last week published an excellent report about the real hardship that kinship parents face. We need to see real change. Labour would have introduced a year of maternity pay and leave, following best practice, and we need to get that right for all parents.

I urge the Minister to bring forward proposals to ensure that there is no inequality between adopters and special guardians, and birth parents. For many of those parents, bonding with their child and addressing the issues of attachment are so important if their families are to succeed and thrive in future. Despite their response, I ask the Government to revisit those issues to ensure that we can create strong families in future.

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.