Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Laura Farris Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Oct 2020, 5:09 p.m.

Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for initiating this debate here today and by declaring an interest: I had a baby just before lockdown. At the beginning of February, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I thank all the new parents who signed the petition and put it on the agenda here in Parliament today.

Throughout this pandemic, we have talked about either very abstract or very specific things such as whether people should go to Barnard Castle. What people really want us to discuss is what matters to them, the real-life issues, such as “Can I see my loved ones in a week’s time? Will I be able to spend Eid or Christmas with my family? Can I celebrate my friend’s wedding? Can I plan my own wedding?”––probably not right now––“Can I be with my partner when they give birth?”. I am glad that we have a chance to talk about something that has a real-life impact on people’s lives today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, for many people, including myself, maternity stopped pretty much as covid started. Seven weeks after our baby was born, my partner, who is a teacher, was able to work from home, so I was able to start work, and the need was great, as many MPs saw a huge rise in casework and massive need.

Some of the people who took the time to write to their MPs were pregnant women who were terrified at the prospect of having to give birth alone or to have scans and maternity appointments alone or in very strange environments. It is hard for people, particularly those who have had difficult pregnancies, miscarriages or problems with their health before. It is almost a cliché to say that this crisis has laid bare many underlying problems that have existed for far too long in this country. We know that, even before the pandemic, over 3,000 health visitors had been cut in the past five years alone. It is clear that social distancing––not being able to see each other face to face–– makes it really hard for new mums to get the support they need. We know that this impacts the child but it also impacts mothers, especially. The expert work that health visitors do on such limited resource helps narrow some of the inequalities that we have talked about. We know that seven in 10 new mums hide or underplay any struggles they are facing. Can the Minister tell us what the Government’s plans are to restore the vital health visitors we have lost over the last few years and to help babies and parents to catch up on support that they have missed during the pandemic? That is absolutely vital.

When we talk about the very first stages in a child’s life, we look to children’s centres and nursery schools. All the support mechanisms have taken a massive hit because of covid, but they have stepped up. Will the Minister readdress the current situation in nursery schools, which have not been reimbursed for any of their covid costs, because that is an absolute disgrace? We know about the confusion and muddle with Government guidance but I am pleased that trusts have been enabled to allow partners to come in for maternity scans, in particular. I know that my own trust, which covers Luton and Dunstable hospital, has done that. What conversations has the Minister had with trusts? Two weeks ago, I got a written answer that said that he had had none, which is deeply concerning because trusts need to be enabled to do this.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris (Newbury) (Con)
- Hansard - -

5 Oct 2020, 6:10 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for whom I am full of admiration. When we first arrived in Parliament, I remember wondering whether any MP had fought their first parliamentary seat so heavily pregnant. I do not think so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her work on this issue. She is right to highlight the issues that underpin this petition. Many of them have been drawn to my attention by an organisation in my constituency, Healthwatch West Berkshire. It touched on points including and most importantly the challenges facing new mothers during lockdown––I will define that as between March and July 2020––such as not being able to see close members of their family, meet their National Childbirth Trust groups if they were in one, or go to a family or children’s centre. The support that we would wish for new mothers was not there.

I would like to confine myself to the proposal in this petition, which is the right to extend paid maternity leave by a further three months to enable bonding and social engaging with other parents and babies through baby groups. I am not going to support the petition, and I shall set out why and what else I think should be done. The first reason is that I am not persuaded that this is the purpose of maternity leave. To look at the statutory purpose we have to delve back into European law. The pregnant workers directive was what kicked off the idea of maternity leave in 1992. Its essence was the wellbeing of the mother. It was about mandating member states to offer 14 weeks for the mother to make a physical recovery from childbirth. In 2009, the European Union looked at it again, and came up with firm recommendations that member states should offer 18 weeks; in fact, it recommended 24. It said that longer leave would have a positive impact on a mother’s health, and that its priority was to help women recover from giving birth and to create a solid relationship with their child.

Maternity leave, I say very respectfully, does not and has never existed for wider developmental purposes, and we should be wary about asking for it to do so, particularly in this country, where women have a statutory right to 52 weeks’ ordinary plus additional maternity leave. I fully accept the extreme limitations that were imposed by the lockdown, but the reality was that that would not have been the entirety of any woman’s maternity leave. To the extent that childcare provision and other services are still limited, I am not persuaded that their offering would radically change if we were to change the period by three months until Christmas, or even into the new year.

My other point is that I am very worried about mothers asking for a further three months’ maternity leave, knowing how vulnerable they are in the workplace. In my experience—I used to be an employment barrister—employers would find that an onerous requirement. While they may not make a woman redundant while she is on leave or even when she has recently returned, if she is caught in a redundancy exercise, say at the back end of 2021, she will find it very difficult to establish causation in an employment tribunal. I am concerned about that.

As to what the Government should do—and the conclusion I reached after 10 years of practice—I think the way to protect, enhance and progress women in the workplace is to embed flexible working practices. We have seen through this crisis how productive and effective people can be through doing their jobs at home. We have seen men doing it for the first time in jobs they never would have thought they could do from home. We have recalibrated our view of flexible working, which can also mean working reduced hours, flexi-working and job shares. My view is that the answer is not in extending statutory leave, but in embedding statutory flexibility in the workplace.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I should make it clear that there is no prohibition on interventions. We can have a robust debate; it is absolutely fine for that to happen.