Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Wera Hobhouse Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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5 Oct 2020, 5:19 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In commencing my contribution to this debate, I pay wholehearted tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and indeed to other members of the Petitions Committee. It is rather extraordinary that the Petitions Committee had an inquiry at all; it is not a common thing for it to do. However, I think that it reflects the strength of feeling for this petition among its signatories—almost a quarter of a million in total—and given the fact that Westminster Hall was not accepting e-petition debates, it was an incredibly powerful thing to do. I am glad that the Petitions Committee not only conducted the inquiry but produced a very robust and encouraging report, which was compelling to read, and made arguments that I have yet to hear substantive rebuttals of. So I thank the hon. Lady for that.

I have no doubt that the Minister who is present here in Westminster Hall today enjoyed the evidence session—I think it was rather robust—and I must say that I have found that he has personally engaged with this issue. However, I have not found the Government to be anything other than tone deaf to the genuine aspirations expressed by mothers, to the concerns expressed by mothers and the wider family circle, and to the imperative of supporting young mothers, young babies and their wider family at a time when we have all had difficulties. I am afraid to say that the Government response was wholly insufficient.

Aside from the contribution of the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), I think there is a general view in the debate that more can be done; the hon. Lady was not denying that, just the intended purpose of the petition. Given that we are potentially entering another period of restrictions within wider society—of lockdowns and circuit breakers— I ask that the Government accept today at least that this issue has not gone away. The pressures that have manifested themselves in huge levels of public support for the e-petition and in the contributions that we have made in Parliament through the Committee’s report and through the subsequent report in September show that this debate is not over.

The Government should accept that families—those in which someone is currently pregnant and those in which someone is in the early stages of maternity leave—are still looking for the Government, who have heard that further work on support for the job support scheme and other measures that that can be taken to support individuals throughout society are needed, to acknowledge that mothers and families still remain in a difficult space. Health visitors, no matter how hard those professionals have tried to respond to the needs of those under their care, are still not providing the best support that they would wish to give. They are still relying on online engagement and Zoom calls, when face-to-face contact and getting to see mother, baby and the wider surroundings within the family setting are so crucial, yet it is all still constrained.

I was pleased to ask the Prime Minister on 23 July when the Government intended to respond to the Petitions Committee inquiry. The Prime Minister said he remembered Bethany from Crewe very well and he indicated that he would consider the report and its contents. I do not think anyone who surveyed the evidence in the Hansard transcripts of the Liaison Committee could believe that there was appropriate consideration of the 23 recommendations. That time has not passed; the opportunity still remains. In the name of the 638 members of my constituency who signed the petition and the hundreds of thousands of people throughout this country, I hope the Government will respond.

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.

Break in Debate

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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5 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

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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5 Oct 2020, 5:54 p.m.

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

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.