Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Owen Thompson Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
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.

Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP)
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5 Oct 2020, 5:36 p.m.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I begin by thanking colleagues for their contributions, the petitioners for creating the petition in the first place and, in particular, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for the work of her Committee in bringing this issue to the House today. We should not underestimate the impact that the issue has on so many people. It was really encouraging to see so many sharing their experiences in record numbers with the inquiry.

Few issues can be more important to society than how we look after the health and wellbeing of pregnant women, new parents and newborn children, so it is great to see this matter prioritised on the first day back in Westminster Hall. It is a great pity that the UK Government’s response to the recommendations has so far been more of a shrug of the shoulders than a helping hand. I very much hope that the Minister is here today with renewed vigour for taking action. Simply saying that our system is among the best and most generous in the world will not really cut it for those who are struggling financially. Maternity allowances here are far from generous. Indeed, UNICEF ranks the UK among the least family-friendly of the world’s richest countries. It is a worrying thought that, unbound by EU minimums, we may see that under threat.

The Government response to this report so far suggests that they either have not grasped or are not concerned about the extent of the impact of covid-19 on the lives and livelihoods of pregnant women and new parents. It should be an easy decision to extend maternity leave by three months, at the very least, to ensure that those who have unfairly lost income, lost leave rights and lost access to health and dentistry services, to baby groups and to family and childcare support are not disadvantaged even further.

It is safe to say that the Prime Minister is in the advantageous position of undoubtedly being able to enjoy the benefits of having a newborn baby around through this period. That certainly brings much joy in a period of difficulty. However, it would be difficult to argue that he shares the experience of those who are struggling with poverty, low wages, insecure work and loss of access to healthcare support, or those facing discriminatory attitudes from an employer. We have heard from other Members about those who have seen their roles downgraded on their return.

In a survey of almost 20,000 mothers and pregnant women by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, 46% of those who were being made redundant blamed the lack of childcare provision because of the covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of real experiences are summarised in this Committee report, which I hope will persuade the Minister of the need for a more sympathetic response as we look to move forward. So far, the Government have been sluggish in responding to the recommendations in the report, waiting until September before even coming out to say no to most of them. We know that they can rush to react when they want to. They did not, for example, drag their heels in any shape or form when it came to getting rid of procurement rules so that they could splash billions of pounds of public money giving questionable contracts to private companies of their choosing, regardless of evidence of ability to carry out the job.

However, when it comes to the relatively small and inexpensive fixes that would ensure fairness for pregnant women and new parents, the response is far slower. For example, making sure that guidance is clear for employers and employees would stop people struggling unnecessarily and would save on the need for costly, time-consuming tribunals. On 16 March, the Government announced that pregnant women at work were especially vulnerable, but they did nothing to make clear the legal obligations under existing health and safety rules—that, if alternative safe work or working from home could not be secured for those women, they should be suspended on full pay. Instead, many were wrongly forced on to sick pay or unpaid leave, or were forced to use up their holiday entitlement or start their maternity leave early, affecting entitlement to statutory maternity pay for many and reducing their maternity leave when they needed it most.

The Government could have prevented that, but they chose to leave those things in a murky mess, allowing pregnant women’s rights to be ignored with impunity. When I asked how many employers the Health and Safety Executive had investigated and taken enforcement action against since March for breaching obligations to pregnant women, the answer, unsurprisingly, was none.

The pandemic has been a wake-up call for so many. The Government have had the opportunity to respond to the detailed inquiry undertaken by the Petitions Committee. On 8 April, the Chancellor said:

“When you need it, when you fall on hard times, we will…be there for you.”

I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to prove through actions, not words, that they are there for new parents.

Dan Carden Portrait Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

It is a delight to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, and to see you back in the Chair in Westminster Hall, Madam Deputy Speaker. As others have done, I start by thanking Jessie Zammit and her husband James for starting this e-petition, and the 226,000 people who signed it. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) who, as others pointed out, took this issue forward and delivered a really important report. Beyond today, I hope the Government will take far more seriously the issues in the report and give us a much better indication of additional support for parents and families, as we head into what will, no doubt, be an even harder winter with coronavirus.

I briefly thank all Members, particularly those from the Opposition, for their contributions. We heard excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Newcastle upon Tyne North, for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).

Even before the pandemic struck, the system of support did not work as it should. There are too many inconsistencies in the support provided to employed and self-employed parents—or biological and adoptive parents, as we heard—causing some to miss out on vital support that is incredibly important at that time in their lives. The existing flaws have been exacerbated by covid-19, leaving many families in hardship and struggling. The Government’s response to the petition and subsequent report acknowledges that we are living through unprecedented times, but it does little more than express satisfaction with maternity and paternity support as it was before. The number of signatories to the petition speaks to the importance of parents’ and children’s wellbeing at this time, and to a real frustration with the inadequacy of the current provisions and the Government’s failure to provide sufficient additional support in the light of the pandemic.

The Petitions Committee’s report explains why the Government’s claim to provide among the most generous maternity support in the world is quite simply untrue, and why it is challenged by UNICEF, as has been mentioned. The report calls on the Government to capture data on the uptake of parental leave, as well as pay, so that any future review of parental leave arrangements can consider the extent to which parents from all groups are able to use their entitlements, and whether to extend leave or provide hardship grants in the light of that evidence. The Minister should take on board that important call. The UK has seen rapid growth in self-employment in recent decades, so it is of great concern that significant disparities exist between employed and self-employed women. Self-employed women already face additional challenges and reduced incomes after having children. If both parents are self-employed, only the mother can claim an allowance and there is no paternity or shared leave for fathers, which means that caring responsibilities fall to the mother. The entitlements available to self-employed women compound rather than address that inequality. Unlike statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance is treated as unearned income and deducted from universal credit, sometimes leaving women up to £5,000 worse off. Can the Minister give any justification for that unfair discrepancy? I call on him to set out how the Government will address it.

That is just one of the many inequalities in entitlement brought about by an inconsistent welfare system, combined with an increase in precarious work. The Government have pursued an agenda of creating a deregulated gig economy, rolling back workers’ rights and fostering insecurity in work, which has left us in the worst possible position as we now face the devastation wreaked on the economy by coronavirus.

Following the announcement by the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer in March that pregnant women are clinically vulnerable, employers that were unable to make the necessary adjustments to ensure workplace safety were required to send them home on full pay, but many pregnant women were unlawfully put on statutory sick pay, which affected their maternity pay and other entitlements. Labour has previously called on the Government to discount covid-related spells on SSP for the period when earnings are used to calculate statutory maternity pay to ensure that pregnant women do not have their maternity pay cut as a result of being on SSP. It is unacceptable that the Government have refused to do that, and I ask the Minister to reconsider.

In fact, the Minister said that the women affected should simply bring an employment tribunal claim against their employer, despite knowing that that is not a realistic option, given the small window of opportunity for doing so and the huge and growing backlog in employment tribunal cases. Citizens Advice says that its advisers are seeing worrying cases of pregnant women who feel that they have been selected for redundancy because they need more stringent health and safety measures, and demand for the organisation’s discrimination advice page has increased fourfold.

I echo the report’s recommendation that the Government should consider extending to six months the period in which pregnant women and new parents can bring claims before the employment tribunal. Last week, the Ministry of Justice published new figures blaming the 31% rise in outstanding employment tribunal cases on an increase in unemployment because of covid-19. It also warned the Government that the decision to end the job retention scheme and replace it with a job support scheme will lead to a further spike at the end of October.

Given that one in four people are already living under regional lockdowns, and that a second national lockdown is a very real possibility, the issues highlighted by the petition, the report and this debate will not go away. It is not acceptable for the Government simply to restate that the support available is generous and sufficient. The evidence submitted to the Petitions Committee inquiry shows that that is not the case. Substantive ministerial action is needed and I call on the Minister to set out what steps the Government intend to take, considering the problems facing pregnant women and new parents that hon. Members have detailed today. It is simply unfair that too many have lost their leave during this period of lockdown, so the Government should look to what action can be taken. The issues raised here will not simply be dealt with in this debate; they require action from the Government.