Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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.