Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Wera Hobhouse Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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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.

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Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee on bringing forward this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on the way she has conducted it and reflected the campaign of the many petitioners. As she knows, I sat on the Petitions Committee for a number of years, so I know from personal experience how important and valuable it is.

I am sure we can agree that this has been an interesting and informative debate. I am grateful to everybody who has contributed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) both have previous experience that showed up in their comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) always speaks with common sense, and the rational and reasonable thinking with which he cut through these issues was very welcome. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) has not been in this place for long, I think she has a great future ahead of her. The professional approach and experience that she brought to bear made hers a particularly insightful and welcome contribution.

The online petition asked the Government to extend maternity pay because of concerns about the lack of opportunities for parents, and mothers in particular, throughout the lockdown. Petitioners pointed out the activities, such as baby groups, which could not occur during the lockdown, and how vital they are for children’s development. We have heard a lot about that in this debate. As a father, I know how important social contact is with family, friends and other new parents. It has been quite a while since my children were in their first months and years—they are now in their 20s—but I do vaguely remember those days a couple of decades ago, and just how important such contact is. It provides invaluable support at times of significant change, and I sympathise with new mothers and parents who have been unable to spend their parental leave in the way they envisaged prior to the pandemic and lockdown.

I recognise that new parents want to give their children the best possible start in life; it is what we all want, and I wholeheartedly agree that activities that support babies’ development in those early months and years are so, so important. We are all social creatures, including from a very young age, and social contact is important at all stages. Obviously, since that initial period of lockdown, we have tried our best to relax the social distancing rules that were previously in place. There have been stricter measures, yes, in some local areas as required, but as a result of those relaxations, including the introduction of support bubbles, more new parents are now able to spend time with family, friends and other new parents, while still respecting the social distancing rules.

The online petition that prompted the Petitions Committee’s inquiry and this debate asked for paid maternity leave to be extended by three months in the light of covid-19. As hon. Members have heard, the Government have not accepted the proposal. Maternity leave is provided to enable employed pregnant women and new mothers to prepare for and recover from birth, and to bond with their child, including through breastfeeding if the mother wishes to breastfeed. Up to 52 weeks of maternity leave are available, 39 weeks of which are paid, and all employed women must take at least two weeks’ maternity leave immediately after giving birth, or four weeks if they work in a factory.

Fathers and partners can take up to two weeks of paid paternity leave. They can also access up to an additional 50 weeks of leave, and up to an additional 37 weeks of pay where the mother does not intend to use her full maternity entitlement. Employed parents also have access to up to four weeks’ unpaid parental leave, and that is per parent, per child, so a couple that wishes to take additional time off work with their baby have access to an additional eight weeks of leave per year, and more if they have other children. I know that this leave is not paid, but it is also the case that all employees have access to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday in a year. The entitlement to annual leave continues to accrue while a parent is off work on parental leave.

We have talked a lot in this debate about the data and international comparisons. It is important to look at the fact that our maternity leave, rather than the parental leave that some people suggested, which is a day one right, is one of the most generous in the OECD. When looking at the time, as compared to the money per week and per month, there are other countries that have a shorter period. Although more money may be paid, often that is combined with social insurance and is therefore dependent on the contributions that the employers and employees have already paid.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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It is the unpaid part that is not generous and that is still unaffordable. Will the Minister please respond to that point?