Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Rachael Maskell Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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5 Oct 2020, 5:19 p.m.

It is good to be back, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate.

The Government’s response to the petition so far has been disappointing. Far too many new parents have felt completely unsupported through what should be a time to bond with their newborn child. I urge Ministers to reconsider their response and extend parental leave and pay for families during the pandemic. The Government claim that the UK is among the most generous countries in the world in terms of parental leave. In practice, that is untrue. In fact, in UNICEF’s ranking of family-friendly policies, the UK ranked only 34 out of 41 OECD countries. As highlighted in the Petitions Committee’s report, the unpaid section of parental leave is simply unaffordable for many parents. As always, it is those who are already more disadvantaged who lose out.

The issue is not only about the generosity of parental leave in the UK. We should have that discussion because it clearly deserves our attention, and we can do a lot better, but today the Government need to consider the impact that the loss of access to vital services, including health visitors, has had on families during covid. That leads me to the subject of mental health. The first 12 months are vital for a new baby. There is an enormous amount of physical and also emotional development. Undiagnosed mental health problems in parents can have significant long-lasting consequences for a newborn child. I speak as the chair of the all-party group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences. It is crucial that we understand what can affect a child’s health from the start and take a trauma-informed approach to building back from the pandemic. Depression before, during and after birth is a serious condition. It can go unrecognised and untreated for nearly half of new mothers who suffer from it. That was the case before the pandemic, and my all-party group has recommended an extension of the six-week mental health check for new mums.

One problem is the narrative that motherhood is only wonderful, which leaves many women feeling unable to talk to health professionals about their emotional state. In my own pregnancies and births a long time ago now, I remember I did not dare to say that I felt rubbish, because it is often very difficult to cope. That was true before the pandemic and it was true many years ago. Covid has created additional challenges. Some 68% of new parents have said that their ability to cope with pregnancy or caring for their baby has been affected by lockdown restrictions. Not only has informal support from friends and family been much more difficult—we have heard many examples in this debate already—but formal services have been cut down, too. In the long term, we need to ensure that mental health checks for mothers take place across England and Wales. I also support the call for the Government to fund and provide additional targeted mental health support. They should certainly provide more funding to increase the number of health visitors. Again, I remember that the health visitor was a lifeline. Such contact is so important for new mums. All that is necessary if we are to avoid a lost generation because of the covid pandemic.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in such an important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the 337 people from my constituency of York Central who signed the petition, which aims to make things right for parents.

I want to put on the record how important it is to support women through their pregnancies. Will the Minister raise with colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care how essential it is that birthing partners and fathers are able to accompany the woman from pregnancy to birth—antenatal care, scans and hospital appointments—and for any care required after birth?

I will touch on two key issues. First, I thank the Petitions Committee for its report and its 23 recommendations, on which I want to reflect in the little time that I have. A constituent has written to me about neonatal care. She is a mother who gave birth 11 weeks early during the pandemic. That is so difficult, not least when her baby was moved to Middlesbrough, which is now in lockdown. She and her family need to be able to spend appropriate time to nurture and be with their baby. Bringing forward neonatal leave by two years would really assist her in that, and doing so now would help her even more. In the same way that the Government have moved at lightspeed to bring in so many measures during the pandemic, I ask that they bring in this important measure to support families in their time of need—April 2023 is too late.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and permanence, the second issue I want to look at is the current inequality between adoptive parents and birth parents. Will the Minister take another look at that inequality, not least in the Government’s response to the Petitions Committee report? We know, for instance, that self-employed adoptive parents are not entitled to an equivalent to the maternity allowance that self-employed mothers can access. They can ask the local authority for support, but they may not get it, and it is means-tested, unlike for birth parents. The 2016 independent review of self-employment in the UK highlighted that disadvantage, yet four years on, there has been no redress. I ask the Government: why?

Special guardians are currently not entitled to any form of parental leave or pay, yet they fulfil a crucial parental role. That creates real inequality: research shows that around half of kinship carers have to give up work to care for their children. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who last week published an excellent report about the real hardship that kinship parents face. We need to see real change. Labour would have introduced a year of maternity pay and leave, following best practice, and we need to get that right for all parents.

I urge the Minister to bring forward proposals to ensure that there is no inequality between adopters and special guardians, and birth parents. For many of those parents, bonding with their child and addressing the issues of attachment are so important if their families are to succeed and thrive in future. Despite their response, I ask the Government to revisit those issues to ensure that we can create strong families in future.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:13 a.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact of covid-19 on maternity and paternity leave. As many hon. Members will know, and as we have heard today, being a new parent is an exciting, scary and, of course, tiring experience—it is rather like being a new Member in this place. Being new parents is a challenge at the best of times, when they have the support of extended family, can attend baby groups and can leave their homes when they please, but having a newborn baby in the middle of a lockdown means that all those challenges are multiplied. That is why Ministers need to recognise the unprecedented experience of those who have become parents during the pandemic.

We have seen various offers and support schemes, but those on parental leave have had no such offers—it is time that we did something about that. As we know, in the time that we have waited to debate the petition—I am very pleased that Westminster Hall debates are back—many of the affected parents have had their maternity or paternity leave pass them by, and they are now grappling with the challenges of childcare during a pandemic. Some of those who have contacted me have had very supportive employers, and that is welcome, but it is not guaranteed. I have heard from other constituents who have not been able to access childcare and who have to consider whether they can return to their jobs at all. Others have had no choice but to take unpaid leave. The Government have previously suggested furlough as an option for people who cannot secure childcare. Personally, I do not think that is the right answer at all. When the Prime Minister said that he would expect employers to be reasonable in such circumstances and that that would be sufficient, it betrayed his lack of understanding about the reality of workplace discrimination.

People who have returned to work have experienced a significant portion of their maternity leave during the national lockdown. The possibility of seeing extended family and friends and attending covid-secure baby groups has opened up, but there are no guarantees. As we have already heard, it is very unlikely that those things will be able to continue in the way we would want. With localised lockdowns, inter-house mixing has been prohibited for many people, and we can see how that affects them on a day-to-day basis. A comment that I received from a constituent has really stuck with me. She said:

“Some days are so difficult. I’ve barely slept, the house is a mess and there is a huge pile of washing to be done. All I need is my mum to come round and hold my son whilst I do this.”

Simple and helpful small interactions often make all the difference.

Baby groups and support from family and friends not only benefit new parents; they are vital for the development of new babies, who look to interact and form new bonds. There will be babies who have had contact only with their parents and not with other babies, and they will take time to adapt to new childcare settings. Even the thought of that—never mind actually doing it—is quite a traumatic experience for parents and their babies. As we have discussed, we know the impact that the early years can have on the rest of a child’s development.

Women who have given birth during the pandemic, and those who are pregnant at present, continue to contend with restrictions on attendance at scans and medical appointments and on access to services. I have heard from constituents who felt a void because they could not see their health visitor in person, and who have been left in pain and distress because they have been unable to receive support from breastfeeding services.

Maternity leave should offer new parents the opportunity to recover from birth and time to adapt to the challenges of a newborn. New parents face having to catch up on missed appointments at the same time as returning to work, and that has many practical implications. The discrimination facing women who are on maternity leave, or who are returning from it, is well documented. As we have heard today, those difficulties are exacerbated in the worst of times. We know it is not business as usual at the moment, so why should it be business as usual for maternity and paternity leave? We should have some changes before it is too late.

Break in Debate

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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5 Oct 2020, 5:54 p.m.

As I say, it is the overall aspect of the right balance, in terms of maternity leave, between the time and the money that we believe is both generous and fair—getting that right balance as a day one right.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North talked about what we are doing to look forward with care in the early years. The Prime Minister has asked my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to carry out a review on how to improve health outcomes for babies and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That review will focus on the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life, from birth to age two and a half. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North says that she is on that committee, which is fantastic. I am looking forward to seeing what comes of that and what recommendations come forward.

On social groups for babies and children, I know how important baby and toddler groups are to new parents and babies, and how distressing it has been for parents to suffer through lockdown. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about GPs and what they can and cannot do in terms of health visits. There is a contractual requirement from 1 April 2020 for GPs to offer maternal post-natal consultation at six to eight weeks after birth—live and stillbirth—as an additional appointment to the baby check in the first six to eight weeks. The Government gave an additional £12 million, invested through the GP contract, to support all practices to deliver that.

On mental health, clearly this is a concerning time for mothers. It is important, as we talk about giving mental health parity with physical health, that we are committed to supporting everyone’s mental wellbeing, especially during this unprecedented period. New parents can continue to access mental health services, including virtually, and the Department of Health and Social Care has released more tailored guidance to help people to deal with the outbreak.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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5 Oct 2020, 5:57 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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5 Oct 2020, 5:57 p.m.

I will not, because I have literally only a minute left and I want the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North to be able to respond.

There is no way I can talk about all hon. Members’ comments in the minute that I have left, but as I said in my response to the core of the petition, the Government believe that the entitlement to 52 weeks of maternity leave and 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance is already very generous. I should perhaps add that those entitlements are provided to enable pregnant women and new mothers to prepare for and recover from birth and bond with their child.

We need to make sure that as we relax lockdown, there are new opportunities for new parents to spend their maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave in the way that they envisaged prior to the pandemic. The recent relaxations have been possible only because we took the difficult decision to introduce stringent social distancing measures, including lockdown. In fact, as we are now learning, we still need to be vigilant at maintaining social distancing, to protect lives.

In conclusion, may I thank the petitioners? We will continue to work on those first early years, to ensure that parents and children can get the support that they want.