Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Maria MillerMain Page: Maria Miller (Conservative - Basingstoke)
(1 month, 3 weeks ago)Westminster Hall
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.”
“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.
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.