Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Maria Miller Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:02 a.m.

It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), and it is a pleasure to speak in this debate on an issue close to my heart, as my son was just four months old when we went down into lockdown in March. We went from having a busy schedule of baby yoga, coffees with other mums, leisurely trips to the park, visits from family—all the things that people do to get through the sleepless nights and caring for a tiny baby—to overnight having no social interaction at all and rarely leaving the house. On top of that, throw home schooling a five-year-old into the mix—holding a baby in a sling or breastfeeding while trying to teach the five-year-old phonics.

For me, being an MP, switching off from work during the pandemic simply was not an option, so when the baby slept, the laptop went on as I dealt with the unprecedented number of emails from constituents. What struck me, though, was that in response to the pandemic, no one in Government seemed to be advocating for the very specific needs of young babies and their families. That matters, because pregnancy and the first few years of a baby’s life are key developmental stages, and adverse experiences and stress during this time can have a long-term impact on a child’s life chances. Sadly, the statistics are clear. The “Babies in Lockdown” report commissioned by the Parent-Infant Foundation found that 68% of parents felt that changes brought about by covid-19 were affecting their unborn baby, baby or young child. The same number also felt that their ability to cope with pregnancy or to care for their baby had been affected by the covid restrictions.

I spoke to some mums from my constituency ahead of the debate, and I want to use the debate as an opportunity to give them a voice. Nic told me:

“Being a new mum, I worry I am not doing enough for my daughter, and also making sure she is eating enough. As the midwife drop-in centres have been closed, I have been unable to weigh her or be able to speak to a midwife or health visitor face to face. That has been a real worry for me.”

Samara said:

“My biggest challenge was feeling isolated at home, trying to look after a baby and a toddler without much support. I felt overwhelmed and alone, so I would have loved some support with childcare from other family members.”

Louisa told me:

“I feel like coronavirus has stolen my maternity leave. The first few months of a baby’s life are about trying to adjust and to get to know your newborn. We had only been going to activities for a few weeks before the support network disappeared overnight. From March until September, my daughter did not meet or engage with other babies. I go back to work in December, and I am already worried about how my daughter will settle into nursery due to her lack of interaction with other adults or babies.”

I also spoke to two mums who gave birth during lockdown. Sophie said:

“I spent four days in hospital on my own after the birth of my first child. I was struggling to establish breastfeeding and felt incredibly isolated. My baby had tongue-tie, but because of covid, the waiting list to get it sorted was six weeks, so we had to pay privately.”

Finally, Rachel said:

“I’ve had mental health problems in the past, so I had a care plan, which involved having a named midwife. That changed due to covid, and appointments were cancelled. My husband was only allowed in 20 minutes before my daughter was born. My care plan had involved having my sister and mum coming to help with the baby, but that couldn’t happen. Three weeks after the birth, I came down with severe post-natal depression and opted to go to a mother and baby unit.”

Many of those stories resonate with me and my own experience. I hope that the Government listen to our collective voice and provide additional support, including resources to allow missed health contacts and other outreach from early years services, such as children’s centres, to take place. Children’s centres have closed at pace over the past 10 years, and that trend needs to be reversed now more than ever, with significant investment given to early years services. Face-to-face health visiting services must be fully restored; again, they require investment, having been cut over many years. Funding is also needed for the more informal support, such as playgroups and drop-ins, which provide a lifeline for so many families but have struggled to reopen their doors. The Government should also revisit guidance about partners being present before and after births.

I thank the Petitions Committee for securing the debate. More importantly, I thank all the parents who signed the petition and called on the Government to listen to their voices. I know at first hand the struggles of the past six months. I applaud everyone who has faced maternity and paternity leave in lockdown. I hope, like them, that the Government are listening.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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5 Oct 2020, 4:49 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the Petitions Committee for its excellent report, the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for their contributions to securing the debate, and all the organisations that gave evidence towards the report, especially Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action.

Parents have faced extraordinary challenges, and none more so than new parents during the pandemic. I would like to comment briefly on three issues raised in the report and its recommendations. It certainly was good to hear the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge reminding us all what it is like to be a new mother or father and the uncertainty that we all face at that time. The lack of access to family members—often mum, who is really good at being there at that time—has been very difficult indeed. We are still waiting for my niece to give birth to her first child, another baby conceived and born in the pandemic period.

The first specific issue in the report that I would like to look at is childcare. Members know that one of the most challenging things for our constituents was trying to balance work with looking after their children, when often their childcare provider was not able to provide them with the childcare that they needed, although obviously many nurseries were open for frontline workers and we applaud them for that. I also applaud the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Minister in charge of childcare, for the work that they clearly did to ensure that the system continued to work even in these very difficult circumstances. I am thinking particularly of the report’s recommendations 19 and 20, which include a call for a review of funding and of lessons learned. There is always a place for learning lessons, and clearly it has been very frustrating for parents to have to try to balance everything without the childcare that they have come to rely on, but I would like to place it on the record that I think that the Ministers have done an amazing job to ensure that free hours have continued to be available for two, three and four-year-olds, that the funding was there even when settings were closed, and that more than £3 billion continues to be spent on nursery provision. I hope that all local authorities are doing what they need to do to ensure that that childcare is secure for the future.

When we look at other areas, particularly the way in which businesses have dealt with the issue, we see a less rosy story. Employers have found it even more challenging than ever to stay within the law regarding their treatment of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. The Government are absolutely clear; when I raised the matter with the Secretary of State in May, he said at the Dispatch Box that

“expectant mothers are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if a suitable role cannot be found within the workplace.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 159.]

Unfortunately, too many businesses failed to hear that or decided not to correctly interpret it, leaving too many women either being incorrectly put on sick pay or starting maternity leave earlier. We know that more women have already been made redundant in the pandemic than men, and that mothers are at much higher risk than fathers of being made redundant from this point on.

Recommendation 4 in the Committee’s report calls for

“clear guidance for employers on their obligations in respect of pregnant women who cannot safely socially distance at work”,

reiterating that women have a legal right to full pay. I fully support that recommendation—albeit that businesses should know that already.

Thirdly, we need better protection for pregnant women in the first place. I have to slightly disagree with the report here, because recommendation 21 calls for bringing in the Government’s recommendations on improving maternity leave. Well, I do not think that the Government’s recommendations are where they should be. I urge the Committee to look at my Bill, the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, which would bring in protections very similar to those already in place in Germany to ensure that while women are pregnant, and up to six months after they return from pregnancy, they cannot be made redundant in the first place. Too many women—around 50,000 a year, we think—leave their jobs when they are pregnant, just because they are pregnant. A sharp warning bell has to be sent to the Government, whose own research I am citing, that the law as it stands is not working and needs to change.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I thank those hon. Members who have led on the issue for many months and set out quite a lot of achievable solutions. It is very clear that the pandemic has affected absolutely everyone in society, but new parents are experiencing particularly acute and harsh point-in-time impacts, because of the disruption to their plans and to services that they would have enjoyed, and because of lost opportunities to bond with family and people in the wider community, interruption to their childcare plans, and the financial hardship that many will experience.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and others outlined some of the feeling about the provision and communication of protections for pregnant women in the workplace and on furlough. I certainly endorse the recommendations of the Committee and, indeed, those of Maternity Action. Unfortunately, the negative financial impacts will have extended to self-employed women, many of whom have constructed their career in that way precisely for a better balance of home and work life. Of course, no account was made of lost earnings due to maternity leave in the qualifying period, and that has left a massive hole in the replacement income for many women, and has exacerbated the gender pay gap that already exists in the relevant part of the economy.

The threat of redundancy is, as others have said, an acute issue, and Members will know that working mothers are already deeply exposed to redundancy or job downgrading. The coming economic challenges, alongside the catastrophic effects on childcare, will sharpen the risk. The advocacy group Pregnant Then Screwed, which has been relentless on the issue, reports 11% of pregnant women being made redundant, or expecting to be made redundant, in the period in question. That is more than 20 times the incidence in the general population. More than half of those women believe that their pregnancy was a factor in the decision. The proportion made or expecting to be made redundant rises to 15% for working mothers, and 46% of those cited issues with childcare provision as a factor. That was already a marginal economic activity for providers and a huge cost for families, if they were lucky enough to be able to find a suitable provider. In that context, the period in which women can bring forward employment tribunal claims should be extended.

As Members have said, the most negative impacts may have been felt in the restrictions on attendance by partners at antenatal sessions and deliveries, and in the immediate postpartum period. There is no doubt about the pressures and challenges that healthcare providers are trying to balance, but the regulations are deeply upsetting for many women at an acutely vulnerable time. The Royal College of Midwives has said:

“Having a trusted birth partner present throughout labour and birth is known to make a significant difference to the safety and well-being of women.”

When the coronavirus is heightening anxiety,

“that reassurance is more important than ever.”

In particular, the changes in rules and their variation across trusts are creating even more anxiety. What women can expect when they are expecting can change more than once during a pregnancy. I appreciate that that is because of the ups and downs of pandemic advice in the community, but I believe such a crucial function should be protected as we are protecting the ability of small children to go to school. Restrictions in this regard should be among the very last to be made.

Women who have just had babies need support in many ways, to rest, to establish breastfeeding, in some cases to recover from major abdominal surgery, and of course just to figure out how to look after a newborn baby. Some women need to stay in hospital for care and specific support, and the rules about partners and visitors are forcing some to choose between hospital care and family care. Many will choose the latter and be discharged too soon, which will create long-term impacts. Midwives, health visitors and volunteer groups are, as other Members have outlined, next to angels in that period in the journey as a parent, with the monitoring, advice and reassurance they provide. It is tragic that that support will not have been available for many.

There will be long-term impacts from this year, for many people, and the isolation of new parents will be a big part of that. It will take imagination and resources to put in place the measures we can. We will not be able to do everything, because of the pandemic restrictions, but the Committee has outlined some measures. France, for example, has just doubled paternity leave allowance. We must make sure that we do the things we can within the restrictions.