Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay

Munira Wilson Excerpts
Monday 19th June 2023

(10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 617155, relating to the cost of living and parental leave and pay.

It is a real pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. The petition asks the Government to

“Increase statutory maternity pay in line with cost of living crisis.”

I am sorry that this debate unfortunately coincides with events in the main Chamber that are taking the attention of an awful lot of Members as they debate the Privileges Committee’s report on the former Prime Minister. The situation does rather highlight how important matters that concern the people we represent do not get the attention they need in this place or in Government because of the issues that are being debated today.

This very important petition also asks the Government to

“Review statutory maternity pay in line with inflation and cost of living.”

It notes that the

“cost of living has been increasing across the UK since early 2021”

and that the impact of inflation on

“the affordability of goods and services for households”

has been significant.

Raising a child is a gift. I am fortunate to know from experience the joy of being a parent, just as I also know the many challenges that parenthood can throw up. I want to outline, on behalf of the petitioners who brought it to our attention in Parliament, the fact that the gift of parenthood is being eclipsed for many by the mire of spreadsheets, cost cutting and the damaging health effects of the cost of living, which has shot up over the past year or so.

The petition’s creator Nicola Sheridan, who is here with us today, counts herself very fortunate. She is a meticulously organised professional who made many plans in advance of having her baby. She looked at the many costs and saved up for a safety net so that she could take a full year away with her son Harry. But while she was following the news during her pregnancy, that first year of their life together, which she had so carefully planned, was continually thrown into doubt by soaring costs. Excitement was replaced by fear and anxiety. I am grateful to Nicola for sharing her experience of the spiralling costs that many parents face, as I know having heard from them ahead of this debate.

Nicola’s experience is far from unique. The number of signatories to the petition indicates that there are many parents who have either experienced the same level of anxiety or share the same concerns. Charities and campaign groups have also been campaigning on the issue, and understandably so. I am grateful to Pregnant Then Screwed, Maternity Action and the Institute of Health Visiting. When I met them prior to this debate, they impressed on me the stresses that parents are feeling; I will expand on that point in more detail later in my speech. Alison Woodhead and Katharine Slocombe from Adoption UK shared the distinct pressures that adoptive parents face. Dr Alain Gregoire from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance set out clearly the scientific case for early years investment. The Child Poverty Action Group stressed that inequality has worsened and is being embedded by a lack of support for low-income parents. From all the people I heard from, one message was resoundingly clear: failing to adequately support new parents in the face of the worst cost of living crisis for generations will have profoundly damaging consequences for parents and children in both the short and the long term.

The headline inflation figure remains stubbornly high at 8.7%, after a peak of 11.1% last October, but inflation is only half the story. It has been concentrated in the fundamentals that new parents rely on: heat, food and personal care goods. The spiralling cost of energy has been widely reported, and has outsized food inflation, which rose to 19.2% in April this year. What has received less attention is the startling rise in goods essential for looking after a newborn. Since March 2021, the cost of formula milk has risen by 24%, with the cheapest own brand option increasing by 45%. Last year, in the 12 weeks to 19 August, the price of Pampers rocketed by up to 60%.

Meanwhile, statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay and maternity allowance have risen by 10.4%. It is not hard to do the maths. There are two primary concerns about how the uplift is calculated and administered. First, the uplift comes in only once a year and uses the consumer prices index from the six months before. As a result, by design, the money that new parents receive from the Government will be out of step with what they actually need. Secondly, many feel that the financial support for new parents is simply not enough anyway. The current statutory rate for parents is £172.48. Compare that with the minimum wage for an average 37.5-hour week, which comes in at £390.20. When the added costs of a new child—cots, prams, clothes, food and formula—are considered, many parents are left with big holes in their budget.

The support for parents is not generous at the best of times. The UK has one of the least generous support programmes for new mothers among OECD countries, with only Ireland and the USA offering less. Add a near-unprecedented cost of living situation to that state of affairs, and we are not far off a crisis. I know that it is easy to slip into a jumble of numbers when discussing the cost of living crisis, so I will focus on the reality for parents, especially mothers, on the ground. We know that women still provide the majority of childcare, and significantly more than men. When we talk about the impact of the cost of living on parents, we absolutely must include fathers in that, but we have to focus on the stress and strain of raising a baby, which is often borne by mothers.

While preparing for the debate, I spoke to a group of really inspiring and strong mothers from Newcastle, alongside the charity Children North East. The reality of modern motherhood that they painted was fraught with challenges. Stress was a recurrent theme, as mothers described the anxiety that rampant inflation is causing them. It is making budgeting almost impossible. Mothers dismiss the Government’s promise of free childcare as a myth, as cost pressures are forcing nurseries to charge for nappies and food, and the number of hours and weeks covered by the Government’s scheme does not match working reality. For those mothers, labelling it as free feels rather like an insult.

One mother spoke vividly of being a new mother as

“one of the most challenging moments in your life”.

Her overarching view was that

“it’s just so stressful—everything is new, your hormones are all over the place”.

Even if you do make a plan, the stress can be overwhelming. She said that

“we are going to end up with a mental health crisis and we’re going to ask why.”

That is even before she has factored in the struggles with budgeting. Add the impact of being a new mother, on top of wondering whether you can even afford formula for your baby, and the stresses and strains that new parents are under become very clear.

Soaring prices and a lack of support are leaving mothers on the brink. I fear that the Government just do not get the reality for new mothers on low household incomes. The Government’s response to the petition justified current statutory pay levels, saying that they are

“higher than the level of other out of work benefits”.

That line rankled with many mothers, and not without cause. Being a mother, especially a new mother, is far from being out of work. Motherhood is work. One mother told me that

“it’s the hardest thing that you’ll ever do in your life”.

You are left alone, weakened after often traumatic childbirth with a tiny person you are entirely responsible for keeping safe and nurturing. Waking up throughout the night to feed them, breastfeeding, changing nappies, playing games, placating them when you have no idea what is wrong—the Government would do well to stop calling that being out of work.

For many prospective mothers, fathers and adopters, the joy of adopting and welcoming a child has been subsumed by anxiety stemming from financial concerns. Paired with this, the tightening of budgets leads parents to spend less on heating and less on healthy food, which affects their mental and physical health as well as the mental and physical health of their child.

In preparation for this debate, the Petitions Committee conducted a survey of petitioners, made up largely of current parents and prospective parents. Some 93% of new parents who responded thought that Government support was inadequate, and a staggering 89% of new parents recorded difficulty in accessing basic equipment like a pram. Faced with such crippling financial hardship, mothers are missing meals, going without heating and cutting down on all spending on themselves. One parent told us that

“the lack of financial support is a constant stress and worry”,

while 92% of parents reported financial difficulties in accessing social activities as basic as visiting family and friends. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these social activities. Raising a child is a full-time job and can be incredibly isolating; moments of happiness can be interspersed with periods of profound loneliness, stress and vulnerability. Family and friends provide that vital relief and support. Taking away a mother’s ability even to visit people can prove overwhelming.

Some 97% of new parents who responded to our survey were concerned about the impact on their mental health of having a child. We are already seeing a decline in parents’ mental health. In January, the Institute of Health Visiting found that 83% of health visitors reported an increase in perinatal mental illness. We must be clear that financial and mental stress also have a direct impact on children. Dr Alain Gregoire, who has studied the impact of early adversity on children, has found that from the moment of conception onwards, poor maternal mental health has an impact on babies, leading to worse outcomes across health, educational attainment and happiness later in life. The stakes are incredibly high, and we are storing up problems for the future if we do not address this. Any Government who look at the evidence have to conclude that early years support for parents and children must be a priority.

It will be little surprise to Members that the cost of living is having a disproportionately large impact on the poorest mothers and babies in our society. We already know that inequalities lie at the root of poorer outcomes for pregnant women and infants, but these are now being compounded by the cost of living crisis. Some 91% of health visitors have observed an increase in poverty affecting families, alongside an increase in families needing food banks.

I have spoken before in this place about the impact of poverty on child development; it is a big issue in my region, and the number of children growing up in poverty is staggeringly high. But it is a vital point and is worth repeating: poverty leads to worse educational attainment, worse physical health, worse employment prospects and worse life expectancy. Poverty even leads to a higher risk of neonatal death.

These outcomes cannot simply be accepted. The Government have a responsibility to act. For example, Healthy Start vouchers are an important lifeline for struggling parents, allowing them to access nutritious food that we know is vital for child development. After the digitalisation of the scheme, take-up was more than 10% short of the Government’s own rather modest target of 75% in March, yet there is no clear plan to improve the uptake. It is well within the Government’s scope to change that. I hope that the Minister will respond specifically to that point.

Furthermore, as Pregnant Then Screwed and others have pointed out, the UK has one of the most complicated parental pay systems among developed countries, resulting in many parents missing out on the support that they are entitled to. Difficulty in accessing Government support is particularly acute for adoptive parents: they are not entitled to the same support as other parents, and self-employed adopters have no statutory right whatsoever to parental pay, so even when support exists, access is clouded in uncertainty. Self-employed adoptive parents can apply to local authorities for grants, but whether that money is given or withheld is entirely discretionary. The all-party parliamentary group for adoption and permanence has found that 90% of adopters said that their social worker had failed to advise them to apply directly to their local authority, so even those who are working in this field cannot work out the system.

Adopted children are already especially likely to have specific and costly needs that can take a significant financial toll on adoptive parents, and the cost of living is making the situation worse. Nine out of 10 prospective adopters told Adoption UK that the cost of living is having an impact on whether they choose to adopt. Of course it is. This is the impact of the cost of living: the children most in need of loving and supportive families are being left in homes and in foster care. Government inaction has meant that a child’s start in life could be determined by nothing more than their postcode. The next generation will be defined permanently by today’s inequality if we do not take action.

I have heard from a mother who spent most of her time applying for the support available worrying that she was getting it wrong. She was so nervous about having it clawed back that she cut her access to some of those support payments. Even when parents are entitled to support, the lack of clarity and the complexity in the system cause great anxiety for parents, on top of the sleepless nights looking after their children. It is probably the sleepless nights that are inducing the anxiety. It is a vicious cycle for many parents.

Inequality becomes embedded early and is self-fulfilling. Intervention at the earliest possible stage is our best defence against it. The earlier the intervention, the earlier the rolling snowball of inequality is halted. Money today will have drastic positive benefits further down the road. It is not just wishful thinking; game-changing early investment has happened before and could work again. Sure Start, introduced by the last Labour Government, led to around 13,000 fewer hospital admissions in older children each year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. At a time when our NHS is severely overburdened, the case for early intervention could not be stronger.

The next Labour Government will introduce free breakfast clubs for all primary schoolchildren, a vital investment that will ensure children have access to healthy food and have a full stomach so that they are ready to learn. Let us remember that many parents who have taken time out to have a baby will often have older children they are trying to feed as well. This is the kind of investment in the future that we will see after many years of inequality.

We know that in the earlier stages of life, time spent with parents is vital for children. What is more, parents want to spend time with their children. Research by the Trades Union Congress found that one in five dads are forgoing all paternity leave because of financial concerns, while mothers are being hurried back into work because statutory pay simply does not go far enough.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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The hon. Lady is making an excellent and powerful speech. Does she agree that with statutory paternity and maternity pay levels so low, at less than half of full-time pay at minimum wage, parents are not being given any choice? Choice is so important. As she says, research shows that in the early days of a baby’s life, having a parent at home, whether it is the mother or the father, is critical. Given the cost of living crisis in which people are struggling with mortgages and soaring food prices, people just cannot afford to take the option of staying at home. They are being forced back to work before they want to go back.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I absolutely agree. The hon. Lady raises the dreaded mortgages issue, which I have not even touched on, but that is a cliff edge looming for many families, if they have not already gone over it.

One of the mothers we spoke to told the Petitions Committee survey:

“I and many other women felt they had to go back to work at 6 months because it wasn’t possible to continue”.

No mother should have to go back to work for any other reason than that it is right for them and their family, and right for them in their career. If they want to stay off work for the full statutory entitlement, that should be their choice, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly pointed out.

Those first months with a newborn are irreplaceable—you never get that time back—yet unsupported parents are being left with no choice. That is the key point. Some mothers may want to go back much earlier, and that is their choice, but the difficulty is that for parents who want to stay off for longer, their choice is often taken away by the reality of soaring prices and a shortfall in support. Mothers are being stranded in an impossible situation, completely torn in two by their work and their childcare responsibilities, and many parents who go back are finding how unaffordable it is because of the soaring costs of childcare. For so long, the motherhood penalty has suppressed mothers’ earning power and independence. That short period of time when they have a small child at home can affect their earnings for the rest of their career and life.

Several mothers in Newcastle spoke to me about the isolating impact of fathers being required to return to work, unable to take the parental leave that many mothers would love to see them take. One mother even said:

“As a Mam, when you’re left on your own after 2 weeks it’s terrifying.”

I remember that feeling. Another described the claustrophobia of being left with her children day in, day out without respite. She said:

“You see your husband going out the door to work and you want to race out the door with him.”

Frightened and alone, new mothers are being let down. A broken childcare system, fathers feeling as if they are unable to take leave, and the negative mental and physical health impacts of raising a child, amplified by the cost of living, are confining women back to their homes. The gender inequality that we should have left in the distant past is creeping back into our lives, and it feels as if the Government are asleep at the wheel.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being very generous. I am passionate about the question of fathers, because in families up and down the country, including my own, fathers are taking the primary responsibility for looking after children. I am proud that it was the Liberal Democrats in government who introduced shared parental leave in 2015, but sadly the take-up has been far too low. We need to build on that by improving pay. We should make parental leave for all mothers and fathers, whether they are employed or self-employed, a day one right. Does the hon. Lady agree, and does she agree that paternity leave should also be increased from the short period of two weeks? On average, it is about 10.4 weeks across advanced economies.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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The hon. Lady speaks very passionately about the impact of parental leave. I am not here to make policy for either the Government or Labour’s Front-Bench team; I will leave that to the two Front Benchers who are here to speak on behalf of the main parties. But I can speak for the petitioners. One mother who spoke to me said that increased paternity pay and leave would be

“the dream, it would have stopped it being all on me.”

I think that quite often the petitioners, who have brought us all here today, say it better than many of us could.

The Petitions Committee has previously highlighted the further action that must be taken to protect expectant and new parents from redundancy, by making it illegal from the moment employers are notified to six months after maternity leave is over. We are proud of the work we have done to see some of those changes in Government.

I want to ask the Minister a few questions about the issues that I have raised; I am sure she has been scribbling notes already. Will she commit to reviewing the way in which statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay and maternity allowance are calculated, so that the pay better reflects the rate of actual inflation and so that the money that parents are getting is not diminishing before their eyes? That seems to be the source of a huge amount of anxiety, as I am sure the Government appreciate.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that every mother knows the support that they are entitled to? Too often, parents seem to lack the information necessary, or they are given incorrect information and miss out on vital support. Will the Minister consider equalising access to statutory parental pay for adoptive parents, including those who are self-employed? Can the Minister account for why the take-up of Healthy Start vouchers remains below Government targets? What are the Government doing to improve that? It is within their gift to do so.

Finally, what recent assessment have the Government made of the impact of maternity pay rates on social health outcomes for new mothers and babies? It is important that we monitor what can be assessed, and outcomes for children can be clearly assessed in age two developmental assessments. Sadly, indications are that they are getting worse, not better. The petitioners would certainly indicate that improving support for new parents would improve outcomes in those age two development assessments.

The status quo does not need to be permanent. Yes, we are in a cost of living crisis, but we can change it. We can change it for the youngest people in our society to ensure that it does not have long-term negative consequences, but that requires the Government to listen to the concerns raised by petitioners and take action. It is a complex issue, and a multitude of stakeholders will be engaged in it. However, at its core is that profoundly important experience of raising a child. If our society allows having a child to become unaffordable, fewer people will choose to have children. One new parent told us:

“Having children in 2023 is no longer a choice you make with your partner, it’s a calculation on a spreadsheet”.

That is the cold reality of modern parenting in the UK. Western societies are existentially threatened by ageing populations, falling birth rates and the need to pay pensions, yet our Government are standing by while this car crash happens in slow motion. The cost of living crisis has shined a sharper light on a situation that was already becoming untenable.

To return to Nicola, the petition’s creator, it is a broken system when even the best prepared mothers feel that they have no option but to create a petition to get the Government to listen and do something. Through no fault of their own, children today are being born into precarity rather than stable, financially secure homes, with parents burned out by stress and isolated by incomes shrinking relative to inflation.

I urge the Government to look seriously at what can be done for new parents, whether that is following up on the recommendations of petitioners by linking statutory pay to the cost of living, by expanding paternity leave or by ensuring that more support is available for new parents in other ways. One thing is clear from the plethora of evidence I have taken ahead of this debate: doing nothing is not an option.