Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 11th February 2021.

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Second Reading

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General 12:55 pm, 11th February 2021

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Prime Minister believes that it is quite wrong for Ministers to have to resign in order to leave work after giving birth to care for a newborn child. The Bill before the House today will make an important and long-overdue change to the existing law. It will enable all Ministers for the first time to take paid maternity leave from their job for an extended period. Thanks to changes made in the ministerial code by the Prime Minister in 2019, there are now codified arrangements by which Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and Ministers of State can take maternity leave. Their roles will be covered by a redistribution of their responsibilities among remaining Ministers. Secretaries of State or other holders of individual offices such as Law Officers or the Lord Chancellor, owing to their constitutional role and the sheer volume and complexity of their workloads, have not been able to make use of this provision.

There has been a similar failing in the situation for Opposition office holders, where the statutory limit on the number of salaries that can be paid means that there is not the flexibility for them to take leave and for their cover to be paid. The Bill provides that it is possible for Members in those posts to take extended leave. It would apply to post holders of the Leader of the Opposition, the Chief Whips in both Houses, and up to two assistant Whips in the Commons.

I am very grateful to Her Majesty’s Opposition for their constructive engagement in the preparation of the Bill and welcome their support for this landmark measure.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

If I may, I will make a little progress.

I particularly thank Rachel Reeves for her engagement and her commitment to the work that we wish to undertake following the Bill to address the other issues that need dragging into the 21st century.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for what she is saying. This has been a particularly difficult time for new parents, new mothers and new babies. During this lockdown period, I have been blessed with two grandchildren, so I have an idea of what it means. It has been a difficult time. The term is a “lockdown baby”. Will the Minister confirm whether there is an extended time for maternity pay? Are there incentives for companies to extend maternity pay? We really need quality maternity leave because of the circumstances of the past year.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but it is slightly beyond the scope of this particular Bill. In fact, the beneficiaries of this Bill are indeed very narrow and I shall comment on that further in a moment. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and elsewhere in Government are clearly looking at a whole raft of long-overdue issues. I am sorry that the pandemic has delayed responses to consultation for very understandable reasons, but his points are well made. I am sure that, throughout the course of this debate and Committee stage, hon. Members will want to touch on the situation facing people other than the handful of individuals that we are concerned with this afternoon. On moving this Bill today, I do so with humility in recognition of that.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I warmly support the Bill, but can Her Majesty’s Government confirm that only a biological woman can have a baby? Will the Minister therefore explain to me why the Bill refers to “a person” and not to “a woman”? If we are going to adopt extreme gender ideology, why are the Government doing it by stealth and why can we not have a transparent debate on the matter? This insults the dignity of many women.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I hope to be able to go into detail about this later in the debate. I know that many Members will want to speak to this issue, and I will want to hear what they say, but I want to reassure hon. Members across the House that there is absolutely no intention of doing that. This is not a policy decision around language, and the Government will still use the word “women” in all documents, as is our policy. The issue is a particular drafting issue, and I can come on to the detail later, in Committee. I hope to be able to give all Members some comfort today about the language that we will be using. I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to leave it there for the moment, but his point is well made and very well understood by myself and the rest of Government. I hope that, by the end of today, people will be reassured on that front.

Although they are outside the immediate scope of this Bill, I know that there are considerable and long-standing concerns about the provision of support for hon. Members in this place who wish to take maternity leave. This has been highlighted by many colleagues across the House. There have been some improvements in this area in recent years, and I commend Mr Speaker and his colleagues and the House authorities for their continuing support for reform in this area, but clearly more is needed, and I hope that the cross-party work that follows this Bill may afford us some opportunities to address those outstanding matters.

Returning to the Bill, it would be reasonable to ask why the Government do not in such circumstances simply take on another Minister as maternity cover. The situation is that there are no fewer than three Acts of Parliament governing the issue of ministerial numbers and pay and, more pertinently, the relevant restrictions on them. Until now, the limits on the number of salaries that can be paid overall, and for individual officers, have left the Government with limited flexibility to appoint cover should a Minister want to go on maternity leave. In a nutshell, for someone to be appointed to cover, and for that individual to be paid, the temporarily outgoing Minister would have to resign. This Bill puts an end to that wholly unacceptable situation. Instead, it will enable a Minister to take up to six months’ paid maternity leave to care for their newborn child, subject to certain conditions and at the discretion of the Prime Minister, while remaining a member of the Government.

This provision will be similar to that available to members of the armed forces and the civil service and, significantly, it responds directly to a recommendation made in 2014 by the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. The Bill does not try to confer equal terms or provide absolute parity with maternity leave provisions for all employees and workers. Both adoption leave and shared parental leave are important provisions, but they are not included in this piece of legislation. They are complex issues that require further consideration in the wider constitutional context, but they are not impossible, and I will return to those issues shortly.

On paternity leave, the current statutory entitlement for all new fathers is two weeks. I am pleased to say that this absence can be accommodated within existing practices, should a Minister wish to take paternity leave. The Government recognise that new fathers may want even more flexibility to support their partner following the birth of a child, and I am glad to confirm that we will consider this as part of our further work. The House will also be aware that the Government recently consulted on parental leave and pay for employees, and we are due to respond to that consultation in the near future. This work will provide us with a valuable perspective on how the existing provisions function, and any future proposals for Ministers will be developed with these conclusions in mind.

Some Members hoped for this Bill to address other issues of parental leave. I mentioned earlier the significant improvements that have been made to make this House more family-friendly, and the provisions that are still needed. The Government agree that both Parliament and the Government should seek to lead from the front on working practices, providing as much flexibility as possible to office holders to aid the effective discharge of their duties. I am very conscious that this Bill relates to a subset of ministerial and Opposition office holders—a payroll of just 115 people. It is also solely concerned with maternity leave. I shall not go into the technical detail of why the other matters are not in the Bill, but let me be clear from the outset that we will bring forward proposals to address those outstanding issues. We looked at putting many of those issues in this Bill. That has not been possible, but we do want to address them swiftly and have been discussing with colleagues across the House how we might do so.

I also know that Opposition post holders—in fact, Members from both side of the House—have for a long time expressed concerns about provision for maternity leave under the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority scheme. IPSA is independent, and for good reason. In this particular respect, I am grateful for the engagement of my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. I know that many Members will want to address these other issues, and I will reserve the bulk of my remarks on them until my concluding speech on Second Reading. In the meantime, I draw colleagues’ attention to the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement committing the Government to present a report to Parliament setting out considerations and proposals on these issues.

The issues with the Bill also touch on the fact that a number of Lords ministerial posts are unpaid. The Prime Minister has undertaken that the Government should look at the use by successive Administrations of unpaid ministerial posts. Clearly the Bill does not relate to anyone outside the ministerial pipeline or anyone outside Parliament. In bringing this Bill to the House, which I hope will gather wide support, I do very much recognise the context. The terms for those in the armed forces and civil service are the terms on which this Bill is pegged. They are far more generous than the public sector average, and many people will be in receipt of far less than that average.

I am sure that some Members will want to focus this afternoon on other issues that people are facing, as I have already set out. I just want to outline some of the detail of the Bill, but I will be very brief in doing so and will go into further detail later. Clauses 1 to 3 deal with the designation of a Minister on leave, setting out the mechanism that allows Ministers to take up to six months’ paid maternity leave. Clauses 4 to 6 set out the arrangements relating to six months’ paid maternity leave for certain office holders in Her Majesty’s official Opposition. Clause 7 contains the usual final provisions.

The second part of the Bill makes provision for certain Opposition office holders—namely, those listed in the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975—to take up to six months’ paid maternity leave. In contrast to the arrangements for Ministers, Opposition office holders who are to take maternity leave would stay in post. The Bill authorises a payment to a nominated individual, who, at the discretion of the Leader of the Opposition in the relevant House, is to cover the office holder’s role on similar terms as those for Ministers that I have already outlined.

The difference in approach reflects the fact that Opposition office holders are not appointed by the Prime Minister and do not have statutory functions in the way that a Secretary of State or a Law Officer does. It is therefore more straightforward for an individual to provide the necessary maternity leave cover while the original office holder remains in post. The arrangements may last for up to six months, and the eligibility criteria are the same for those in relation to Ministers. The Bill leaves it to the discretion of the Opposition leader in each House to appoint individuals to these temporary covering roles. Only one person can be appointed to cover an office holder’s post at any point during the period of leave. However, should the Leader of the Opposition wish to change the appointment, they have the discretion to do so.

Clause 5 builds on these provisions and outlines how the allowance payable should be calculated, how payments are administered and when payments should end. As with the provisions for Ministers, the person appointed to cover an office holder’s role should receive a monthly allowance that is equivalent to the office holder’s monthly salary. This financial arrangement should continue for as long as the individual is fulfilling the responsibilities of the role, but for no longer than six months. This allowance, as is the case with Opposition office holders’ salaries, is to be paid from the Consolidated Fund.

The final provisions relating to Opposition office holders are set out in clause 6, which establishes the relationship between the appointed individual covering an Opposition office holder and existing legislation. As is the case with a Minister on leave, where the Opposition office holder is a Member of the House of Lords, she is not eligible to claim the so-called Lords office holder allowance provided under the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991 while on maternity leave. However, the individual appointed as maternity cover by virtue of these provisions is entitled to claim that allowance for the duration of the appointment. That is because the allowance is to reflect the work undertaken in the House, such as late-night sittings.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 makes provision for both Members’ and Ministers’ pension schemes. Both Ministers and Opposition office holders are entitled to pensions under the Ministers’ pension scheme. Given that there is no material change to their position, there has been no need to make provisions in the Bill to ensure that their salary remains pensionable during their maternity leave. However, the individual appointed to cover the post is entitled to the Ministers’ pension scheme for the duration of their appointment, in relation to the allowance paid to them for the role.

Finally, clause 7 makes the usual provisions necessary for the Bill to operate in law, including defining its territorial extent, setting out its commencement arrangements and providing the Bill’s short title. The Bill comes into force on Royal Assent and will thus be of immediate benefit to those wishing to take maternity leave, should there be anyone who is in those circumstances. As I said, I am very aware of the issues that the Bill has brought to light with regard to language. I know that there are time pressures on the debate, but I will address those issues in more detail in the course of the afternoon.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out in his written statement on this topic last week, the Government have undertaken to look at considerations and proposals for Ministers and Opposition office holders in the other areas not covered by the Bill. We are committed to building more widely on the progress that the Bill represents and will present a report to Parliament setting out those considerations. For the reasons I have outlined, I hope that all Members of the House will support the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1:12 pm, 11th February 2021

I am pleased to follow the Minister, and I thank her for the discussions we have had in the lead-up to the Bill’s Second Reading. I congratulate Suella Braverman on the impending birth of her baby, and I know that the whole House will want to send her and her family our very best wishes.

Let me say at the outset that the Opposition will be supporting the Bill, which is a small but welcome step in updating legislation in this important area. It is, of course, important that parents in the workplace should be supported in the challenging early months after the birth of a new baby, with the right to take paid maternity leave from their employment, whether they are in the Cabinet or in any other workplace. These changes should be made for the right reasons—because they are the right thing to do to support working parents, not because they are just politically expedient.

I welcome the Minister’s assurances that the Government are prepared to work on a cross-party basis to look at further reforms to bring us into line with best practice in this area. Further changes are indeed needed, because the proposals in their current form do not include, as the Minister recognised, any provision for paternity leave entitlement, those seeking to adopt or those on shared parental leave. As things stand, we are very much playing catch-up when it comes to parental leave.

If we are to encourage women from all backgrounds to become Members of Parliament and, indeed, Ministers, we must have modern working practices, so that it is a vocation that is open to everyone. A clear sign that further changes are needed, particularly when it comes to making Westminster a more family-friendly environment for working mothers, is the make-up of the House today. At present, 102 years after women first won the right to stand for Parliament and after reforms to sitting hours and the system of proxy voting, there are still just 220 female MPs compared with 430 men. That has to change if we are truly to reflect the country and all the experience and talent within it. I urge the Minister to work constructively with other parties and find parliamentary time to progress the further reforms that I believe many in the House would like to see.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I know that the Minister responded to my initial intervention, but the shadow Minister has referred to more reform, which I think is important. That reform has to look towards other elected representatives, including those in the Assembly and the councils. As an example, one of the ladies who works for me is a councillor, and she did not get the leave that she should have had, so I think this Bill is only the first stage when it comes to maternity leave. Does the hon. Lady agree that we can, and must, go further?

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Elected representatives, whether here in Parliament, in devolved Administrations or in local government, and indeed those in all workplaces, absolutely deserve maternity rights which in some workplaces, including those of elected representatives, just do not exist today. I would very much support further reform in this area.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

I very much welcome what the Opposition are pushing for. Does the hon. Lady agree with me that this House has a position of leadership, in relation not only to the devolved Administrations but to the rest of the country, and that is why work towards paternity leave and, particularly, shared parental leave is so important?

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The Paymaster General and I have been speaking about the further reform that is needed, and in a way, the case for this Bill has shone a light on the wider reform that is necessary. We should not just be reacting to events; we should be thinking towards the future and about the challenges of combining work and family life which all of us in this place—men and women—face.

I would now like to turn to some of the challenges that women in Parliament have faced over the decades, and to talk about why it is so important that we continue to modernise some of our, frankly, outdated working practices. Without the battles fought in Parliament by the women who have come before us, I do not think we would be here today, fighting for those further changes that will make us more representative of the people we seek to represent. Pioneers such as the indomitable Barbara Castle fought for years to secure equal pay for women. There was also the independent MP Eleanor Rathbone, who successfully battled to see the Family Allowances Act 1945 become law. They both helped to build the foundations for a better, fairer society, particularly for women.

There are many other inspirational women MPs who have done so much for women’s rights. However, that often came at a high price. None of the first four women in Cabinet—Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Florence Horsbrugh and Barbara Castle—had children, and it is hard to see how in those early decades they could have combined their job, and the antisocial hours it involved at that time, with having much time for family life. The first woman Cabinet member to have children was Judith Hart in 1968, a full 50 years after the first woman took her seat in this place. As the then-Labour MP for Lanark, she found it very hard to combine long periods away from her family with her work in this place, and eventually made the difficult decision to relocate her family from Scotland to London.

The first woman MP to have a baby while serving as a Member of Parliament was the former MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, Baroness Hayman, who had her first baby in 1976. However, just 10 days after giving birth, she was forced to come into Parliament because pairing had been suspended, and there was certainly no proxy voting then. She had to leave her baby in the Whips Office in order to take part in crucial votes. I also remember seeing my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq in a wheelchair in this Chamber two years ago for a key vote, as it was just two days before the birth of her son. At least that unacceptable situation has been ended by the system of proxy voting which, because of cross-party support, now enables MPs who are new parents to nominate another MP to vote on their behalf if they choose to do so.

Despite the hurdles they faced, those remarkable women built the foundations for the work in Parliament taken forward by irrepressible campaigners such as my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, Dame Joan Ruddock, and the late and very much missed Dame Tessa Jowell, who all tackled inequalities, injustices and rights for women in Parliament and in the country. In fact, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham has long supported the changes that we are discussing today. Under the last Labour Government, Ruth Kelly, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and my hon. Friend Meg Hillier had babies while serving as Ministers but had no formal provisions for maternity leave. The same has been true for Conservative Ministers in the past few years. They all watch with interest and contribute to this debate. It is fair to say that their experiences of combining their work as Ministers and their roles as new mothers were mixed, and I am very much looking forward to hearing my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford speak later in this debate.

I have already touched on Barbara Castle’s achievements with the Equal Pay Act 1970, which came when there were just 24 female MPs and was a watershed in the fight for gender equality. We have also had the Equality Act 2010 from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, the introduction of thousands of Sure Start centres, and the introduction of child tax credits and of free nursery places, all of which have been a lifeline for so many women and families in our country.

However, there is still much work to be done on improving employment conditions for women and the culture in workplaces, both in Westminster and across the rest of the country. The decision a decade ago by the former Speaker to close a bar on the parliamentary estate and replace it with a children’s nursery was undoubtedly a welcome move and has benefited many in this House and our staff, but it was not before time. I also recall that in 2015, when I was shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and expecting my second child, a Conservative Member suggested that as an expectant mum I should not be appointed to the Cabinet if Labour won the general election, as I would not be able to manage doing two things at once. I hope that he has since revised his opinions, and I am pleased that this Bill will allow Cabinet Ministers, for the first time, to have paid time off after the birth of a child.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip

I am sorry to hear the experience that the hon. Lady is recounting. She has been paying tribute to pioneering, so I wonder whether she will join me in paying tribute to Aileen Campbell, a good friend of mine and the first Minister in the Scottish Government to take maternity leave. At that time, the Scottish Government were able to find a way of having a substitute Minister. It is not quite the same as what the Government are proposing today. Aileen and a couple of other MSPs are, sadly, leaving the Scottish Parliament because of these pressures, so it is welcome that we are making small but steady progress along the way to supporting women in politics.

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which builds on the point made by Jim Shannon that it is important not just in this place, but for other elected representatives, that wherever they are representing their constituents they should be able both to continue doing their job and to bring up a family. We need in this place and in other elected forums to be able to represent the whole country. We say that we represent Britain or our local community, yet too often we do not look like the communities we are meant to serve. I hope that with the sorts of changes in the Bill, and with those in devolved Administrations and councils, we will make ourselves more representative.

Although the measures in the Bill amount to positive change, there is understandable alarm about this Government’s track record on workers’ rights more generally. It is important that while we today make changes to help women in this place, we also think about employment rights and women’s rights more generally. Just like this Bill, the Government’s new employment Bill should be an opportunity to extend and safeguard workers’ rights, not water them down. However, after a year of silence on that Bill, the Government have failed to deliver on their promise to enhance the rights of all new mums. Pregnant women have found widespread discrimination throughout this pandemic, with many left without basic maternity pay and instead put unlawfully on to statutory sick pay during the pandemic. Indeed, there is a stark contrast to be drawn between the Government’s urgent passing of this legislation, which we support, and their inaction on behalf of struggling pregnant women across the country. I hope that today the Government will reflect on what more they can do to help women in this country.

The Government should also be doing more to help the parents of babies born prematurely. Under the current rules, maternity leave of up to 52 weeks starts when the baby is born, but because a premature baby can spend weeks in hospital, mothers are effectively cheated of spending some of the leave with their new child. I raised this subject two years ago, as a Back Bencher, based on casework in my constituency and working with Bliss—the charity for babies born prematurely or sick that does such brilliant work. I called on the Government then to change the rules so that new parents of premature babies are not put under further unnecessary pressure; today, I again urge the Government to bring forward plans to ensure that parents of premature babies are given the time and flexibility granted to other parents to care for their baby once their baby is home.

At present, Ministers have no rights when it comes to maternity, paternity or adoption leave. If a Minister wants to take maternity leave, as the Paymaster General set out, the rules do not allow for them to continue to receive a Government salary along with the person providing their maternity cover. It is right that that should be changed to remove that barrier in a woman’s career. The Bill would end that anomaly and mean that Ministers would not have to face being financially penalised or forced to stand down from their ministerial role to care for a newborn. The changes would bring Ministers into line with most civil servants by providing them with a period of six months’ leave on full pay.

Last year, there was cross-party support for the change that now allows MPs who are new parents to use the proxy voting scheme, so they can spend precious time with their new child. The proposals before us today represent another baby step in what should be an ongoing modernisation of working practices to ensure that women do not get a raw deal at work due to failure to move with the times. It is a shame that it has taken the pregnancy of a member of the Cabinet—happy news though that is—for this Government to realise that improving the workplace rights of expectant parents should be a priority. This change will benefit family life, remove a barrier to career progression, and ensure that having a baby does not come with a financial penalty as well as the sleepless nights that none of us can prevent. However, we need to see far more progress by the Government on this issue to ensure that women and all workers are treated fairly in the workplace, including when they have children.

We are behind the times when it comes to adopting modern, family-friendly working practices in Parliament and in Government, and change is long overdue. I ask the Minister to make a firm commitment to review and explore, as a matter of urgency, further potential reforms that can be made with cross-party support to ensure that this “mother of Parliaments” is a Parliament that genuinely welcomes mothers. This should be the start, not the end of a journey by this Government to deliver more employment rights and to give workers in all workplaces and in all jobs the protection and support they need and deserve.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call Caroline Nokes, I want to set out the time limits that will apply. As Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes will have six minutes. She will be followed by another Front-Bench spokesperson. Then, from Cherilyn Mackrory onwards, a four-minute limit will apply, and that may be reduced later.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 1:27 pm, 11th February 2021

I appreciate being called in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is an honour to follow not only my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, but Rachel Reeves, who made a number of incredibly important points, some of which I will echo. I want to put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend for having taken the time to speak to me ahead of the introduction of the Bill. It is incredibly important that we do this and that we get it right.

I start from the principle that no woman, whoever she is, should be forced to resign her job because she is pregnant and needs to take maternity leave. It is 2021, and that principle is, in my view, absolutely beyond question. I therefore support my right hon. Friend today because we have to solve the immediate issue, and we have to allow our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General the right to take maternity leave. Like everyone else in this House, I wish her well as—fingers crossed—she earns the right to be the first Minister in history who is deemed to be a Minister on leave. But—my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General knows my thoughts on this—what a mess! It is well into the 21st century before we have had to face this situation, and why oh why did it cross nobody’s mind that we might need to address this issue before it acquired the urgency it now has? Is it really unthinkable that a Secretary of State or one of our Law Officers can become—heavens above!—pregnant? Where is the Government Equalities Office in the horizon scanning, thinking about what other inequalities lurk in our procedures, our way of running Government, so that they can be ironed out sooner rather than later?

Although I regret that the legislation is coming only now, at least it is coming now. But does it go far enough? It is painfully evident that it does not. Where is adoption leave, and what about provision for shared parental leave? Can my right hon. Friend put my mind at rest that this position of Minister on leave is sufficiently flexible to allow a male Secretary of State who has become a new parent to take it up? I think there are challenges here, and while I recognise the fear that making this a more comprehensive Bill would risk delaying it, thus disadvantaging the one woman it is designed to help, I regret to say that I need significant reassurance that there will be swift action to address questions around adoption, surrogacy and the myriad issues that may well crop up in the future.

Returning to the theme, this Bill is designed to stop, quite rightly, one woman from having to resign, and indeed those who we hope will follow in her footsteps in Cabinet positions. My right hon. Friend will know that the Women and Equalities Committee published this week our report on the gendered economic impact of covid. It specifically highlighted the position of pregnant women who have been incorrectly put on statutory sick pay instead of maternity pay, and those who have been denied furlough, when they could have been placed on it, because they were pregnant. One of the recommendations in that report urges the Government to introduce legislation in this parliamentary Session to extend redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers. I am sure my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller will say something on this later; she had an excellent ten-minute rule Bill on the subject.

My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has found time for a Bill for one woman, but the Government have not found time yet for a Bill for thousands of others. I urge them to do so. The report also calls for a cross-departmental strategy for dealing with pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The mere fact that we are here debating this Bill demonstrates that even in Government, in the 21st century, maternity discrimination can prevail. While I recognise that this might be outside my right hon. Friend’s remit, I hope she will take the message back to fellow Ministers that a great deal more work needs to be done. That could perhaps be in the long-awaited employment Bill, which might include provisions on such things as miscarriage leave and leave for parents with a sick child.

Finally—I do appreciate that this is a narrow Bill, and that I may be testing your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker—may I raise the issue of equalities impact assessments? There is a danger that legislation introduced at pace will overlook equalities considerations. We have seen that occur throughout the pandemic. Measures introduced with good intentions for good purposes have sometimes had impacts that had not fully been considered from an equalities perspective. Please can we try to avoid the same mistake here? By not including adoption leave or provision for surrogacy, are we perhaps inviting equalities challenges further down the line? I would like an assurance from my right hon. Friend that an equalities impact assessment will be done, and I would like that to be given to us from the Dispatch Box today.

We have to do this now. We could have done a great deal more, and when my r hon. Friend winds up, I hope that she gives me the reassurance I need that the Government recognise that the job is not yet done. There is still a great deal of work left for them to do on maternity rights, but this is a crucial step—for now.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 1:33 pm, 11th February 2021

I also welcome this Bill in principle and as far as it goes, which is not far enough, but perhaps it is a sign that this House and the UK Government recognise that they have some way to go to begin catching up with the world around them.

On issues of equality and of acknowledging and breaking down barriers, this House deservedly has a reputation for making progress very slowly. Today we are discussing something that should surely already be in place, not simply because elected office should not be a barrier to a family, but because attitudes and practices here have a material impact on the lack of proper treatment and the prevalence of issues such as maternity and pregnancy discrimination outside this place.

It was not until 1975 that statutory maternity leave was introduced in the UK through the Employment Protection Act 1975—later than in most countries in Europe. Indeed, with this Bill, welcome though it is, progress continues to be too slow. Here, the perplexing basis for maternity leave is that the Minister must seek permission from the Prime Minister to take such leave, the implication being that the Prime Minister retains the power to say, “No, the maternity leave is not granted.” How very Edwardian in 2021.

The rest of the world has long since moved on to the position that maternity leave should be a right rather than a discretionary benefit. How we can expect people to appreciate that and act in that way if this place is so backward-looking? It should not be necessary for women to seek the potentially grudging consent of a boss to take maternity leave.

I was fortunate when I twice took maternity leave to have a supportive and encouraging boss. It was clear to me that I had the right and, importantly, the support to take the leave that was right for me and my family. I wonder how I would have felt if the ability to grant my leave was in the gift of my boss, given that we cannot always be guaranteed the supportive boss that I had. For me, that happened well before any involvement in politics.

Our representation is clearly not reflective of who we are. We are far less diverse as a political class than those we represent, and the lack of proper provision for maternity feeds into that. We cannot expect that lack of representation to improve unless we improve the structures that we work within. I wonder whether I would have wanted to stand for election to this place as a younger woman starting a family, considering the various challenges, including gaps in provision for MPs and Ministers.

We have heard about heavily pregnant MPs being wheeled through the Lobby recently, against all logic and surely against advice, because the arcane processes of this House were simply not set up to accommodate their needs. This House can and should be better than that. We have a duty to be better. We cannot simply go along with the make-do-and-mend approach that the UK Government have had for so long.

The posts of Ministers on maternity leave have been left vacant, and their responsibilities have been carried out as best as possible by colleagues who are also carrying out their own responsibilities. The one thing that has saved all that from crumbling is that no one fulfilling a Secretary of State role in the UK Government has ever tried to take maternity leave. That fact reveals a great deal about the relative importance of the issue in the minds of those at the very top.

We have rightly heard comments about the contrast between arrangements in the House and those outside it. That is important. The contrast between the speed at which the Bill has been progressed and the shocking delays in dealing with the pressing needs of pregnant women in the pandemic is stark and just not good enough. The fact that maternity allowance is just £151.20 a week, which is about half the national minimum wage for a full-time worker, is deplorable. The fact that it will increase by only 77p a week in April is frankly an insult. Those issues must also be addressed. I realise that they are not before us today, but they all fit together into a lack of care and direction from the Government.

The mechanism that the Bill identifies for repairing the current crumbling edifice of ministerial maternity cover should be uncontroversial. Any organisation needs to provide for such events, which routinely happen, so I hope that no one would seriously suggest that, in a large ministerial team, there should not be contingencies to support maternity leave. However—I repeat myself in case we lose sight of the point—it is incredible that it has taken until 2021 for the UK Government and the House to address the matter.

The explanatory notes describe provision for maternity leave as problematic or “particularly difficult to apply” to a Minister in a very senior office, such as a Secretary of State,

“because the legal exercise of functions of such roles cannot be ‘covered’
by another Minister.”

I am afraid that I do not buy that. That is just a cop-out. It sounds like exactly the kind of excuse that has been used by backsliders on this issue ever since the idea of maternity leave in employment entered our thinking. It is followed by the statement:

“The result is that a Minister in such a role who wished to take extended maternity leave would need to resign their office.”

It is breathtaking to see that kind of language. It makes us check our calendars to make sure that we are in 2021. How can we expect improvements and proper treatment outside this place if that is how we run things here?

The explanatory notes reveal exactly the kind of thinking that we all know still goes on in recruitment to senior jobs, and that results in the glass ceiling for women in so many institutions. They display the unconscious bias that underpins so much systemic discrimination in the UK and around the world.

To signal that that kind of thinking has no place at the centre of political and economic power, the SNP has tabled an amendment to remove the notion that prime ministerial discretion should have effect in relation to maternity leave. Ministers, MPs—all of us—should feel secure in the knowledge that we work for an organisation where no guilt will be piled on us if we take time off for maternity or, in fact, for family reasons. We have to be clear that there is a need to look more broadly than this very narrow issue, that this long-awaited progress does not go far enough, and that the scope of the Bill is not great enough.

These things matter, not only because the arrangements put in place by this House for the UK Government are important for the proper operation of the Government, but because they act as a signpost to other companies and organisations in the UK as to what approach they are expected to take. We do not have to look far to see the issues out there. A survey of 20,000 women by Pregnant Then Screwed last summer found that 61% believed that their maternity leave was a factor in their redundancy decision. Given the example set by this House and the UK Government today, that is perhaps not surprising.

It is also unsurprising that the UK ranks poorly among OECD countries for how it deals with maternity. The UK has the second lowest-paying rate for maternity leave, with less than a third of gross average earnings replaced by maternity payments; despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave lasts just 12 weeks. That is why, as a statement of principle, we have tabled amendments that would extend Ministers’ maternity leave from six to 12 months.

Let me be clear that that does not mean that we support one rule for Ministers’ maternity leave and another for the general public; the amendments set out what the direction of travel must be for the whole workforce. I hope that as part of the preparation for the wider review that I talked about, including the broader area of parental support provision, the Government will look carefully at that and ensure that equalities impact assessments are carried out before this business returns—quickly—to the House, so that these things can be addressed in the round.

That should include an examination of the challenges facing Members in their constituencies and their legislative roles when they become new parents. It is interesting that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority this morning seemed to recognise that it, too, needs to look at that. When the Minister looks further, I urge her to look at the words of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, which said:

“The lack of formal maternity and parental leave for MPs is entirely out of step with wider society and gives the impression that the work of a Parliamentarian is not appropriate for those with caring responsibilities.”

That is the crux of the issue. It is completely unacceptable that this House and the UK Government have got to 2021 without putting in order their own arrangements for properly supporting maternity leave.

On the basis that we need to make progress on this issue today, the SNP is supportive of what the Minister has brought forward, but if the Bill is to pass largely as drafted, I will be keen to hear from her significant commitments to returning to this issue before the summer to correct some of the glaring omissions and the lack of principle, so that we can fix this issue and send the important messages that we must send beyond this place.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 1:43 pm, 11th February 2021

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for her opening remarks and for ensuring that the Bill is being debated today.

Many will ask why this issue has not been addressed already. It is over 100 years since Nancy Astor entered this place, and we still have not quite got it right. The Bill is another welcome step towards ensuring that Parliament and a career in frontline politics are a realistic option for all women, whatever our time in life. It is vital that all obstacles of inequality are removed and that all important contributions can be made.

It is my hope that by passing the Bill, we will open the door a little wider for many young women considering entering Parliament in the future. Being an elected representative for their local community should be a viable option for as many people as possible, and the more obstructions that we can remove, the better. I want as many capable young women as possible to think that becoming a Minister is a viable option for them, regardless of their age or their fertility.

The Bill is highly unlikely to affect me personally, but as the co-chair of the APPG on baby loss, I have a special interest in the health of mother and baby. The Bill is a step towards improving the condition of both, with Government setting the example that the health of a mum and baby comes first. It is fundamental that in a free, modern and civilised society such as ours, we give a clear signal that this is paramount. The wheels of the Whitehall machine must not stand in the way of the most precious time that any new mum has to bond with her newborn baby. This time is important not only for the physical and emotional recovery of mum but to the continuation of the physical and emotional development of the baby, and thus to the life chances of that child.

Unfortunately, the level of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the UK is still astonishing, with an estimated 54,000 mothers every year being forced to leave their jobs because of how they are being treated during their pregnancy or maternity leave or after they return to work. These worrying statistics are from a report produced in 2016 by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the prevalence and the nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. The covid pandemic has made this even more stark. At present, employers can lawfully make a woman who is pregnant or on maternity leave redundant if they carry out a fair redundancy process, and the only responsibility the employer must have in these circumstances is to make them an offer of a suitable alternative vacancy. All this can, and does, lead to a crazy amount of stress for a pregnant woman or new mum at the time when stress levels should absolutely be kept to a minimum for the sake of her own health and that of her baby. Sustained strategies such as these can lead to pregnancy loss, low birth weight, and post-natal depression.

The particular nature of our job does not help. I have been very upset to read and learn of some of the shocking abuse that female colleagues in all parts of the House have taken for daring to have a baby while being an MP. That is simply not acceptable, because MPs are also wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers and friends. It is not acceptable for any new mother to feel that extra pressure, or to be told that they are skiving, not working hard enough or should not be having a baby while serving in office. Post-natal depression, if left unchecked, can and does lead to tragic suicide. Do we really want to wait for a female MP who has post-natal depression to be pushed too far before society sits up and takes notice? MPs are not alone in suffering from post-natal depression, and I would not wish for special treatment, but society does seem to think it acceptable to target its anger towards MPs.

I mentioned in my speech last October as part of Baby Loss Awareness Week that birth is always perilous for women. I hope that the Bill sends an important signal to society that women and the contributions they make are valued.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee) 1:47 pm, 11th February 2021

I strongly support the Bill and everything that has been said so far by the Minister, by my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves in an excellent speech, and by the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. I also fully support everything said by Cherilyn Mackrory.

The Bill formally recognises that women now play an invaluable role in public life and that women have babies, and that we should support them and not downgrade them when they do. It is true that it has taken forever for us to get here, but better late than never. I do think we must give the Government credit for bringing the Bill forward, because they could have tried the fudge, favours and verbal behind-closed-doors promises that were the best that women Ministers could have hoped for in the past. The Bill sends a big and important public signal of valuing women’s work and recognising their commitment, including at the highest level. The Government have done the right thing by the Attorney General and women Cabinet Ministers; now they need to put right the completely wrong situation for the rest of the women in this country.

Women are doing an amazing thing when they have a baby. It takes a huge toll on a woman’s body to carry a baby, and it is the most demanding thing to care for a new baby, and yet we punish them by cutting their income and making them insecure at work. Statutory maternity pay is only £152 per week—less than half of what people get on the national minimum wage—so the woman’s income is clobbered just when she needs to be spending more. Honestly, if men had babies, do we really think that maternity pay would be so insultingly low? Not a chance. The law allows a year for maternity leave, but many women are forced to go back way before that, and before they feel they or their baby are really ready, because they simply cannot afford not to, or they fear—with justification—that they will be downgraded or even sacked if they take more than a few months.

We are here in Parliament to do the hugely important job of being an MP, but we have an additional responsibility as women in Parliament to fight to improve the lives of women in this country. Therefore, as I give the Attorney General my genuine and warmest best wishes for her second baby, I am counting on her, when she comes back, to be an outspoken champion in Government of the maternity rights of all women.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 1:50 pm, 11th February 2021

It is a great privilege to follow Ms Harman, who has blazed a trail on so many of these issues in the time that she has been a Member of the House. It is also a reminder that although she has been such a powerful advocate for women, we still have so many outstanding injustices to tackle, with the Bill tackling one of the most outstanding ones.

It seems staggering that in the 21st century we are still having to legislate for fair treatment and equality for women. We should not demur from grappling with these challenges as soon as they materialise. All of us here who are women Members of Parliament continue to encounter discrimination, whether on our own part or when fighting for constituents. Those challenges are reflected in our having a Minister for Women and Equalities, and indeed a Women and Equalities Committee. Of course, we must tackle the fact that not all unfairnesses and injustices can be dealt with by legislation; most today are behavioural and practical in their nature. However, by holding this debate, shining a light and taking action ourselves, we can give the best possible leadership to all employers in the country—and all women in the country, to show that we are on their side.

I very much welcome the Bill as an advance in women’s rights, but I felt moved to table amendments because of representations that I have had from women about its language. I fully understand the challenges that the Government faced in bringing forward this legislation. Clearly, the need to amend existing legislation made the job more difficult, and the use of language was not especially easy. None the less, I felt it important that we reflect on that.

The fact that we are holding this debate today explains why women are anxious about protecting their rights, and why they become very sensitive about language used. We see more and more how our sex is being dehumanised by non-gender-specific terms. A lot of women do not mind. Particularly for younger women, who perhaps have not gone through the fights that some of us who are a bit older have, it does not really matter, but for a lot of women it genuinely does cause distress. It is important that we in this place at least reflect on that, challenge ourselves and ensure that we do use the most sensitive language that we possibly can in tackling these issues.

We shall discuss my amendments in Committee in due course, but I must say that I find it difficult to be challenging my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General on this, because there has been no greater champion of equality than she. I was reassured by her opening comments that, whatever the language in the Bill, it does not reflect any more long-term view. However, the Government need to be sensitive about these issues, because in making a big leap forward in advancing rights, we do not want to alienate anyone with discomfort about the language used.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 1:53 pm, 11th February 2021

It is an honour to be part of the debate and the work that we are doing to bring forward this legislation. Let me congratulate the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, and wish her well in her forthcoming maternity leave. What is so powerful about this legislation is not just the clarity over her income but the clarity about her actual cover: she will be able to spend time with her child and not receive calls at three o’clock in the morning when the Attorney General is needed.

I welcome the Paymaster General’s comment that we need to do more. It is that which I wish to speak on particularly, because, as she has recognised, the Bill benefits only a very small number of women. To benefit only a very small number of women at this time in this country’s life is to fail to recognise the peril that may come from this legislation, which is not about its drafting but its scope. We are sending a message that maternity leave should be a perk conferred by an employer as a benefit—just as a company car would be—if we only pass this legislation.

The Paymaster General said that the Prime Minister believes it is wrong that a woman might have to leave work to care for a child, but in truth that is happening in workplaces across the country, and it involves thousands of women. During the pandemic, one in four women who are pregnant or a new mum have said that they have faced discrimination, and that they are losing their jobs or being furloughed. In that context, to work only with that small number of women is not just a missed opportunity, but potentially sets up a two-tier system for maternity leave in this country. As the people who make the laws, we send such a message to businesses regarding how they should treat pregnant women at our peril.

The Government are currently being taken to court by Pregnant Then Screwed because, when they calculated the self-employment income support scheme, they forgot about women who are self-employed and who took maternity leave. We have heard from many Members about our concerns for public life. It is not an accident that most women who enter public life, not just in this place but in local government and our Assemblies, tend to be older women who have already had children, or those who have chosen not to have them. Even in this Bill, we have yet to begin talking about fathers.

The Bill tells the lie that I was told two years ago when I was pregnant and asked for a locum to cover work in my constituency, so that my constituents would not feel short-changed by having a woman of childbearing age as their MP. However, as MPs, our employment status was too complicated to enable us to act. If we can pass a Bill in a day in this place to address that issue, we could do so much more to ensure that our public life is open to all women. It is a missed opportunity not just for local government, but for the staff who have worked with us in this building, who have terrible maternity rights.

Two years ago I fought for a locum. No other MP has been able to have that, even though I know colleagues across the House who have had terrible experiences of being pregnant and trying to get support. We cannot say, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” On that basis, let me be clear: the Government have made commitments today but, as the suffragettes said, this must be about deeds not words.

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, you may be looking and me and thinking that during lockdown I have been attacking the pies a bit, and you would probably be right. But I am also pregnant with my second child. I am early on in my pregnancy. I should not have to reveal that, but I am doing so today to be clear to pregnant women around this country that they will find champions in this place, and it is not enough for us to act only for that small group of women at the top of our society. We must act for every woman to be able to take maternity leave.

We must make sure that legislation such as that proposed by Mrs Miller is given time in this House, and we must stop IPSA prevaricating, as it has done for the past two years. We must give every woman in this place the same rights that we are giving the Attorney General. Please, Paymaster General, it is time for deeds not words when it comes to maternity and paternity.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The very best wishes of the House to you, Stella, on your great news.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 1:58 pm, 11th February 2021

I warmly welcome the Bill, which was a recommendation by the all-party group on women in Parliament under the then chairmanship of Mary Macleod. I send my right hon. and learned Friend Suella Braverman all the very best wishes for her pregnancy. There can be few who would think it fair for a Minister to feel that there was no alternative but to resign from their job because they are pregnant. This Bill means that Ministers will not be forced into that position, which is welcome.

However, being forced to leave a job for being pregnant is exactly what happens to thousands of pregnant women who we represent. In righting this wrong for Government Ministers, will the Paymaster General also undertake to right it for women throughout our country? Codifying the protection of a pregnant woman’s job is exactly what thousands of women need now. The people we represent want to know that Ministers are being treated no differently from them. Routinely identifying pregnant women for redundancy is too familiar a problem. Under this Government, record numbers of women are in work, and they are an essential part of our economy. We cannot ignore the fact that for thousands, current legislation provides protection only in theory but not in practice.

The Government’s plans to extend tribunal time will not solve that problem. It is a situation that has become more acute, as we have already heard in the debate, over the last 12 months, so will the Paymaster General please add her support for the change that I am calling for in my ten-minute rule Bill? When it comes to modernisation, there is a tendency to take small steps. We do not just pass laws in this place; we influence people, so, please, any proposals for parental support need to be brought forward swiftly. Perhaps she can indicate when in her summing up.

As the Government get their house in order, so must the House of Commons. Bringing in baby leave was a positive step, but it was a small step made in isolation of the broader issues that parents face in this place. There is no clear process in this House for how we agree changes in the way we operate. “Erskine May” says nothing on pregnancy or support for parents, and there is no clear structure in place for us to make a collective decision that cannot be blocked by a small minority, and then that decision has to be acted on. If we are to encourage more people from different backgrounds to want to stand for election, as an institution, we have to change the way we do business. If we do not take action, others might do it for us, undermining our unique position as office holders, not employees. I fully support the Bill, but it demonstrates how much more there is to do.

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Labour, Gower 2:01 pm, 11th February 2021

It is an honour and privilege to follow Mrs Miller in this debate. There is no doubt that Parliament needs to be brought into the 21st century. In principle, this is a vital and long overdue Bill and I welcome it. It ensures that female Ministers will have similar maternity rights to other women at work. I very much welcome the further work and proposals that have been spoken about today.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Stella Creasy, who highlights that the Government must not make this a two-tier system in Parliament, with only those who have the most senior Front-Bench positions having these arrangements. That gives licence to employers to think that maternity leave is a benefit like a company car that can only be offered to some. It is a right, not a privilege.

It is important that shared parental leave is championed by Members in this House to encourage the take-up by men across the United Kingdom. Being a parent is a tough job, and men need to step up and take a more equal share in caring responsibilities.

There remains a significant barrier to women’s involvement in politics, which has been spoken about today. As a single parent myself, without the support of my mother, I would not have been able to sit on those green Benches in 2017 when elected. Very few women have that privilege, which is why removing the barriers for new mothers in politics is of great importance to me.

In Chwarae Teg’s report “State of the Nation 2021”, the figures in Wales are stark: 86% of single parents are women in Wales and 40% of women are part-time workers. Many of these households are in great poverty. I hope that we will see swift changes, so we will not be holding women back and we will enable them to make their full contribution to society and the economy. I look forward to being part of that work.

Also on a serious note, I speak in support of the amendments tabled by Sir John Hayes and Jackie Doyle-Price. I thank the Minister for the comments she has already made on this. It does seem a bit of a misstep in the drafting of the Bill and can be seen as insensitive to many people. The fact that it refers to a “person” who is pregnant and does not mention “woman”, “women” or “she” at any point is totally at odds with all other maternity rights and protection legislation. The use of “person” would be asymmetric with the rest of the law on maternity rights and protection.

I give the following examples because we need to be factual: in section 66 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, on suspension from employment on maternity grounds, all references are to “she”; in section 71, “ordinary maternity leave” refers to “she”; in section 73, “additional maternity leave” refers to “her” rights; and in the Equality Act 2010, section 72 onwards, where a woman is employed or holds personal or public office, it is all about maternity equality. I therefore ask the Minister to reconfirm that the wording of the Bill will not be rushed in through the backdoor at this very difficult time, without scrutiny, discussion or challenge. The Government can be better and can move quicker, as we have seen with the speed of the Bill’s introduction. We all have to be better; we have to do more for new mothers, and not just those who have the privilege of being a Member of this House.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 2:05 pm, 11th February 2021

Though it is a mission of Back-Bench parliamentarians to bring this Palace to life, the service and sacrifices made by Ministers in pursuit of the common good and shared endeavour should be recognised and celebrated. They are responsible for the actions, successes and failures of entire Departments, so it is perhaps inevitable that some will become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of that challenge. But it is easy, too, for ministerial office to consume the holder, defining their decisions, both privately and personally. That is precisely why this Bill is so important. In life, irrespective of how grand or important we are, what we do should never trump what we are, as individuals or as a people. When all is said and done, it is the metaphysical, the beautiful and the relational that cultivates grateful perspective and lasting joy.

Whether as mothers or fathers, sons or daughters, parenthood, as a fundamental feature of our humanity, matters. As such, it is right that we reflect on how we as a nation, as a Government and as a Parliament support parenthood, opportunity and, in particular, as this Bill does, support mothers. How do we recognise and reward the service and sacrifice required to raise a child from birth to maturity, to shape the intricacies of a human soul with kindness, commitment, discipline and restraint? This Bill is a welcome start. It provides an example. For if we in Parliament get this wrong, how can we expect others to get it right?

That a woman at any stage in her life must be supported emotionally and financially from the moment her baby is conceived is surely the right thing to say, but also the right thing to do. There is a communal societal duty to support children, and indeed adults at every stage of life, from the first heartbeat before birth to the final breath. By formalising the process by which Ministers can take paid maternity leave while remaining in Government, the Bill will go some way towards eliminating any subtle or subconscious pressure placed on women in public life to abandon their pregnancy, or indeed to compromise the care they give in the early stages of life.

I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, who has taken the Bill from its conception to, we hope, its legislative adoption. By the way, this is this Attorney General who had the courage to give up her lucrative career as a lawyer in order to enter Parliament; the Attorney General who had the will to refer the case of PC Harper to the Appeal Court; the Attorney General who is reforming the practice on disclosure; the Attorney General who successfully argued recently to increase the sentences of a rapist in the Court of Appeal.

It must be noted, however—it is too often the case with Government—that artlessness or heartlessness has allowed the capture of a well-meaning and just Bill by civil servants who have clumsily excluded the word “women”. That can be put right in Committee and I will say more about that then.

The Bill can also be the beginning of a new focus on family. I recommend the work of another hon. Friend, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, whose manifesto to strengthen families provides a blueprint that the Government can follow to do just that. Among that report’s recommendations, alongside sensible reforms to tax and benefits, is a suggestion that we should look again at the criminal justice system.

The Bill is an important step, but it is only a step on a long journey—a journey that affirms the role of women in public life and the role that women play in families and in wider society. It is also a Bill that is proud of motherhood and, my goodness, in the mother of Parliaments, should not we all share that pride?

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 2:09 pm, 11th February 2021

I start by paying tribute to Becky Regan, the NHS worker who very sadly passed away last week after catching covid when heavily pregnant. Every life taken by this disease is a terrible tragedy, but the sense of loss is even more acute in this case, because Becky had just given birth to her fourth child. My thoughts are with Becky’s family, friends and colleagues at this desperately sad time.

I mention Becky’s case because the pandemic has been particularly challenging for pregnant women and new families. There are many areas where new and expectant mothers could and should be better supported. This Bill must prompt wider conversations about the rights of pregnant women and new parents in the workplace. The conversation should cover not just Cabinet Ministers, but the millions of parents across the UK who are struggling with inadequate parental leave policies. It is shocking that the Government are only looking at this injustice now because a colleague in a high place has run into difficulties with the unacceptable provision currently in place. It is also typical of this Government to bring in legal changes that narrowly protect one colleague, rather than trying to do justice for everybody.

The principle of the Bill is long overdue. There is absolutely no question but that the Attorney General should take paid maternity leave and then return to her post. I recognise that this legislation must pass at pace in order for her to do so, but I am looking for a commitment from Government that this issue will be revisited with broader legislation as soon as possible. We need time to give it proper scrutiny. I would also welcome a commitment that further legislation will create proper legal rights for paternity and adoption leave, as well as maternity leave. No one, whether in high places or not, should be forced to choose between a career and having children. I hope that this Bill will prompt the Government into strengthening the employment rights of pregnant women and new parents across the UK.

The Bill will allow Ministers to take up to six months of leave on full pay. In contrast, far too many families in the UK are struggling financially. The basic rate of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance is just £151.20 a week—only about half the national minimum wage. Proper paid maternity leave in the UK is among the lowest in Europe. We rank 22nd out of 24 countries. This Bill must be the start for change for pregnant women and new parents across the UK. It is our duty to do a lot better from now on.

Photo of Feryal Clark Feryal Clark Labour, Enfield North 2:12 pm, 11th February 2021

The thrust of the Bill is long overdue and much needed, and to that extent, it should be welcomed. For far too long, an artificial and arbitrary barrier has been put in front of women who wish to serve their constituents in government. It has been a case of naked discrimination hiding in plain sight. By allowing the Prime Minister to designate a Minister on leave, we will in some respects be bringing the world of public office in line with the world of work. It should go without saying that we should be an exemplar of workplace rights, but in truth, this place has all too often treated the many women elected to it as an irritant or an afterthought.

I still have many reservations about the Bill. Why, for instance, have the Government wasted this opportunity by making the Bill applicable only to Cabinet-level positions? If we want to see a Government and legislature that reflect our wider society, they must be a welcoming place for all those who work across them. The Government should revisit that aspect of the Bill and correct it immediately because, by continuing with such glaring gaps in the system, we are sending out a dangerous message to employees across the UK. We are saying that it is okay to think of women as secondary to the needs of the organisation, that a token effort is effort enough, that protecting the management is a job well done and that women should be grateful for whatever small breaks are afforded them. That type of thinking leads us further down a path where women are de facto excluded from decision-making roles and positions of power, while needlessly snuffing out the aspirations of future generations.

It is all well and good speaking in abstracts, but for me, this Bill is also very personal. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am both an expectant first-time mother and a first-time MP. When I stood for election, I did so because I wanted to do right by my constituents in Parliament and to stand up for a set of principles that should transcend party politics. And yet, as a Member of Parliament, with all the vast opportunity and privilege that that affords me, I am scared. I am scared about taking informal maternity leave when my baby arrives in two months; it is informal as there is no formalised maternity leave for Back-Bench MPs. I am scared that it will be used against me politically and, most depressing of all, I am scared that, beneath the warm words of good luck and congratulations, some Members will take a dim view of my taking maternity leave at all.

Today we need to fix immediately the fundamental failing of the Bill before us, even while accepting its fundamental necessity. We must view this as a chance not to fix a problem for a Minister but to right a wrong for countless women—Members and staff—and start changing the culture around maternity rights in this place. We can send a signal to all employers that this is not just the right thing to do here; it is simply the right thing to do. That is where the majority of the country is. It is time that Parliament starts to follow in the nation’s footsteps and recognise the huge benefit that women bring to this workplace and countless others.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the hon. Lady for her speech, and I would like to offer, on behalf of everyone here, our sincerest congratulations and warmest wishes to her.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West 2:16 pm, 11th February 2021

Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to start by echoing your congratulations to Feryal Clark and to my right hon. and learned Friend Suella Braverman on the impending birth of their children.

This debate is so timely, and it covers so many important issues. That fact is that people take notice of what we do in this place. We should be leading—we should be a leader—and I am afraid that, at times, we are not. No one should have to resign from their job—a job that they have worked hard for over many years to obtain—simply because they have had a child. I glad that this legislation will finally stop a scenario where women are effectively excluded from taking a role in Government for fear of having a child.

I was saddened to hear from Patrick Grady that we are losing a lot of good politicians in Scotland, due to them having to make these exact decisions. It makes our politics less. It means that we lose that quality and that insight. We lose those experiences that are so vital in debate, that help us to understand those perspectives when we add them to our discourse and that ultimately make our politics better.

As my hon. Friend Mr Holden said, we still have a lot of work to do, and I do not think anyone would deny that. We need to ensure that we use this opportunity to close the gender gap. As Rachel Reeves pointed out, this place is still skewed towards having too many male Members. We have to ensure that we take practical steps to at least enable a fair roll of the dice, so that people can get involved in politics.

This is not abstract. For communities like mine in the Black Country—in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton—what we are talking about today is not disconnected. If we want to ensure that people can aspire to achieve, take an active role in our politics and see people such as themselves involved in our public life, we need to ensure that having a family does not prevent them from getting involved in politics at all levels. The Bill goes some way towards doing that, but as Jim Shannon said, we must not forget about local government. One of the benefits of the Bill is that it has triggered wider discussion, and I hope that we will talk more widely about how we can extend this across all our politics and all levels of government.

As we talk about levelling up—something from this Government that I have been very proud to champion—we have to ensure that we do not exclude people based on their gender. At present, it would seem that in some ways that is happening. We need to ensure that we have a system that enables everyone to engage in our public life and our politics. As many right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, we also need to end the stigma—the idea that it is somehow wrong for someone in public office to have a family, that we are not human beings and that we do not act as normal people do. This legislation goes some way towards doing that.

I very much welcome the comments of the Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, but I ask her to remember this: men have an equally important role to play. As we continue this debate and as the Bill opens up those lines of discussion, we have to ensure that men can play an equally important role in the upbringing of their children, because we know that the role of a father, as well as a mother, is so important. As someone who did not have a father growing up, I can assure my right hon. Friend that it is vital that we enable children to have that full family. I fully support the Bill and commend my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham 2:20 pm, 11th February 2021

I welcome what the Government are trying to do with this legislation. I know that it is for a specific case that has come about relatively recently, but I support the idea that we should do everything we can to ensure that public life is open to all. The current rules are antiquated, so this Bill is absolutely a step in the right direction. I am particularly glad to see the inclusion in the provisions of those who, sadly, have stillborn children.

It is quite right that we are looking at this issue, although, as the Minister said, the beneficiaries are narrow. As my hon. Friend Shaun Bailey said, it opens up a real question around the leadership of this House and what we want to do for the future. I was particularly glad to hear that Rachel Reeves supports the legislation, and that following this Bill the Government are looking at proper cross-party working on paternity leave, adoption leave and shared parental leave.

There was one thing in the Minister’s opening remarks with which I disagreed: that this legislation affects the 115 people currently in positions in the Government. It does not, because it does not cover shared parental leave or paternity leave. I really hope that those matters will be considered as quickly as possible. I have several friends in couples where both partners are working, and who are in very difficult positions at the moment. For example, one partner—now often the woman—is earning a higher amount of money but might actually want to go back to work sooner than the man, and they cannot do that because there are not equal rights, in the same workplace, for men and women on shared parental leave. It is a real issue that is affecting people across the country right now. We in this House have a responsibility to put it at front and centre, and to lead the way on these issues.

The Bill is a step in the right direction. I echo some of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West, particularly about the importance of men’s role in bringing up children. We are not going to crack the issue of shared parental leave and men taking more responsibility for the children they have until we move beyond the narrow debate that we are having today, and broaden it out to the issues that affect families—yes, in ministerial office, but right across the country as well.

Some important issues were raised from the Opposition Front Bench, particularly around caring for newborn children. It is hugely important that people’s careers, particularly at ministerial level, are not held back by outdated practices. I would like my right hon. Friend the Minister to reflect on some of the concerns raised by me and other Members across the House. We really want to see these issues, particularly around shared parental leave, brought to the fore. We want to ensure that people—whatever their gender—are there and doing what they can to support the upbringing of their children.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 2:24 pm, 11th February 2021

The SDLP certainly welcomes this move in the right direction but, like others, we have some disappointment that the principle of a woman being able to take maternity leave has required speedy legislation to be put right. This should have been addressed earlier; the gap has been apparent for a while and it should have been addressed more comprehensively and systematically. This should not hinge on the situation, the pregnancy or the career of any individual having to be so intrusively and widely discussed. The swift action to correct the situation when it affects a member of the governing party’s top team feels like a contrast with the response to the rights and needs of other pregnant women and mothers in wider society.

The fact that this legislation is “just in time”, to borrow a topical phrase, is an illustration of the archaic nature of some aspects of this institution, and of the reforms that are needed to ensure that political and Government structures are fit for purpose and have equality at their core. It would be glossing over a wide range of complex structural and cultural issues to imply that fixes such as this will magically open up political opportunity to many more parents, but if correctly done, this Bill could address one of the chill factors for those who either have or are planning families, and it would be a small but visible example of Parliament actively enshrining fairness. Whatever a woman’s job might be, taking a reasonable amount of time off to have a baby should not be a perk and should not be something that has to be negotiated; it should be a right.

As others have mentioned, MPs are not employees but officeholders, and as a result are excluded from some standard maternity rights. Many self-employed women face similar penalties in relation to maternity-linked lost earnings in terms of the self-employed income support that has been available earlier this year and last year. I want to highlight the fact that we need to stop thinking about childbirth and motherhood as some sort of random occurrence or curiosity, but rather as reality—and happy reality for a very large part of the working population. It is also worth saying that the devolved institutions and councils, including the Assembly, where I previously served, are not doing very much better in this regard, and I hope that the discussion we are having today catalyses change there too.

The debate has been genuinely informative, particularly the engaging potted history of trailblazers in this regard from Rachel Reeves. I want to commend other Members, including Mrs Miller, and I hope that the Government will apply rigour and adopt her proposals on non-discrimination for new mums. I also commend Stella Creasy, who has been relentless in her campaigning for the rights of other parliamentarians.

The terms and conditions that are offered in the Bill contrast favourably with those offered to other public servants, and this highlights the paucity of offering for NHS staff doctors, for example, who are entitled to only eight weeks’ full pay, or for teachers, who, certainly here in Northern Ireland, are entitled to only four weeks’ full pay. Of course, the situation is much worse for people in other sectors, and tragically so for people in the gig economy. That is the sort of levelling-up agenda that we need the Government to actively pursue. We concede that the Government have moved fast because they want to, but they need to deploy the same speed and core purpose to raising standards for all working parents and, of course, to broadening this out to adoption and to paternity leave as well. We need to make this place not a place apart but a modern workforce reflecting the whole population.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 2:28 pm, 11th February 2021

I congratulate the Attorney-General on her pregnancy and on being the first Cabinet Minister to take maternity leave. It is 20 years ago this summer since I was the first Minister to take maternity leave, and it is quite astonishing that it has taken two decades for a Cabinet Minister to be able to do the same. Three male Prime Ministers and a Chancellor have had new babies in recent years, but no women in the Cabinet have done so until now. So this is a step forward, and of course Ministers should be able to take maternity leave and have maternity cover, and if we want it to be normal across the economy and society, we have to show that it is possible in Government.

I welcome this legislation, but it is limited. Even within Government, it does not provide for fathers to do their bit in the family in those early months or cover adoption leave. It does not cover parliamentary issues and, really importantly, it does not cover councillors, with the Fawcett Society saying that just 7% of councils have a maternity policy in place. Of course, importantly, it does not deal with the ongoing and unfair discrimination that still happens in practice against women in so many different workplaces across the country, because the systems for protecting maternity rights are still too weak.

When I needed to take maternity leave as the Minister for Public Health in 2001, I asked the Health Secretary what I should do. He did not know, and said, “Ask the Prime Minister.” He did not know, and said, “Ask the Cabinet Secretary.” He had absolutely no idea, and as Ministers are Crown appointments, he said it was really a matter for the Queen, but nobody thought we should be asking Her Majesty. We then tried to work something out that was similar to civil servants’ arrangements. We did not get it all right, and the lack of proper cover arrangements caused difficulties, and while the Health Department was really supportive, that informal approach proved inadequate a few years later when I took maternity leave again. The Communities Department was not as supportive, and I had to struggle to get basic arrangements in place.

When we were drawing up those arrangements, no one had thought about this before. That was bad enough 20 years ago, but we have no excuse for a short-term, reactive approach now. The rushed and limited nature of this Bill shows that Government are still doing the same, despite the fact that many Ministers and many parliamentarians have needed to take maternity leave since then. This kind of reactive approach is, I think, still discouraging women from coming forward into public life, and that is bad for democracy. It still risks being discriminatory, particularly for councillors, but perhaps most importantly of all, it shows that at the heart of government, the civil service and Parliament, maternity arrangements for everyone still are not really being taken seriously enough.

It is great that the first Cabinet Minister is taking maternity leave and it is good that the Government have brought forward legislation to make it happen, but it is time we had a more comprehensive approach to make sure that maternity and paternity leave can be a normal part of everyone’s lives. We need a timetable from the Government about when they are going to address some of the political and Government issues in relation to Parliament, but also to look at councillors. Most importantly of all, we need action against the maternity discrimination that is still taking place, often highlighted during the covid crisis, but also deeply rooted in too many workplaces right across the country, so that many more women can properly be able to keep on working and support their families, and many more fathers can support them in doing so as well.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs) 2:32 pm, 11th February 2021

It is an honour and a privilege to follow Claire Hanna and Yvette Cooper. I welcome this Bill, but, as others have said, it does not go far enough to tackle maternity discrimination. That said, I am delighted for the Attorney General, and I wish her every blessing with her pregnancy.

I want to focus my concerns on one aspect of this Bill that has been mentioned already: why does this Bill make no mention of women? It is women who give birth and women who benefit from maternity leave. Is this a reflection of the ideological language that is now seen across schools, universities and the NHS, which bans use of the word “woman” and use of the word “lesbian”? Why must we deny the fact that there are two sexes, and why must we deny that biological sex exists? Why are the Government not complying with the Equality Act 2010? That legislation refers to pregnancy and maternity, and uses the day-to-day language of centuries: woman, she and her.

If this is an innocent mistake, then let us put it right quickly and easily by replacing the word “person” with “woman”, but if it is not, let us talk just for a moment about the erasure of women. Most women do not even know that this erasure of their sex class is going on, and when they find out they are appalled and they cannot believe it. Those of us who try to warn of the consequences of the erasure of biological reality and the reality of womanhood from legislation are often pilloried. Many politicians are now so in thrall to those who wish to erase women for the purposes of advancing gender identity theory that they call those of us who advocate for women’s sex-based rights transphobic, even when we have never done or said anything against equal rights for trans people in our lives, and even when some of us were trans allies before it was fashionable to be such.

It is not transphobic to advocate for women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act 2010. It is possible, and right, to support both trans rights and women’s rights. Neither should be sacrificed for the sake of the other. We can have an inclusive society for everyone without doing that. Sex is a protected characteristic for a very good reason: discrimination against women is rooted in their biology. That is our lived experience. We must find a way to be inclusive without erasing women’s biology and women’s lived experience from the statute book, so why is this Bill doing that? Women are not “chest feeders”, a phrase we heard earlier this week: women have breasts, and women feed their children with their breasts. Lesbians are same-sex attracted: we are attracted to women’s bodies, not men’s bodies, and to say we must be attracted to men’s bodies is homophobic. These things need to be said, and they need to be said in this mother of Parliaments, so let us put this Bill right and reflect the reality and the law, as set out in the Equality Act and supported by the CEDAW convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:36 pm, 11th February 2021

First of all, I add my congratulations to Suella Braverman, and the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark).

As so many other right hon. and hon. Members have said in this debate, I find myself both supporting and welcoming this Bill, and at the same time being astonished at its shortcomings. Before being elected, it would never have occurred to me that representatives in this place did not have the basic provisions for parental leave that I had taken for granted during my career. Indeed, my daughter is now 24, and I was taken aback in 2017-18 when one of the first changes we discussed in the House after my election was about proxy voting for Members who were pregnant, and about maternity and paternity leave. I discovered that parents in the House did not enjoy the same rights that I had had more than two decades before, so while I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues support this Bill, we are disappointed yet again that it lacks provisions for paternity leave and other parental rights. It does not, for example, address rights for adoptive parents, and how someone becomes a parent should not determine what leave they are entitled to.

This was, as I say, a missed opportunity: an opportunity for the Government to bring parental rights up to date, and to introduce not just measures for Ministers, but measures that apply to all MPs. This place should not just pass legislation, but set a tone for so much in our society. Gender equality is something on which we should be taking a lead, not running to catch up, as we seem to be. Work practices such as shared parental leave are vital to creating new cultural norms and achieving that gender equality, but how can we expect that to happen if we do not, as I say, set the standard ourselves? As the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, if we get it wrong here, that will be reflected across the country. That is why I have signed, and support, the hon. Member’s amendment requiring the Government to produce an equalities impact assessment of these proposals. As has been mentioned, even well-intentioned legislation can, if it is rushed through, fail to recognise pitfalls. So please, let us not fall into one or fail on that account.

It is vital that the Government recognise that the Bill cannot be seen in a vacuum. It is certainly an important measure, but we must also send a message across the country and ensure that it is the correct message. It must send out a national call to action to protect the rights of all parents in all workplaces during these most difficult and challenging times.

There is still much more we need to do for parents. We need to increase statutory paternity leave, ensure that parental leave is a day one right and address the continuing inequalities that same-sex couples face. Organisations and employers must be required to publish parental leave and pay policies.

Like so many—indeed, all, I believe—of the speakers we have heard so far, I welcome the Bill. It has simply been too long delayed and does not go far enough.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I am afraid that we need to move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople after the next speaker.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:40 pm, 11th February 2021

I too would like to start by congratulating the hon. Members for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and Suella Braverman and wishing them all the very best in their pregnancies.

Like many others, I come to this Bill with a sense of frustration. The progress is welcome, but the Government have missed an opportunity to put many other things right. I would not argue for a second that Ministers should not get maternity leave, but the Bill does not go far enough. I agree with Christine Jardine that it should deal with, for example, adoption. It is also a bit of an insult to working parents across these islands, who have found their own maternity and paternity leave compromised during the pandemic. It is a sign that the Government move fast when they want to, but not for everybody who needs that.

At the start of the pandemic, I asked the Chancellor how he intended to protect the rights of those who were pregnant. Some had been asked to take statutory sick pay or holidays or to start their maternity leave earlier than they should, thereby losing out on time with their baby and on the pay they needed. When I raised the matter, a cloud of bemusement swept across the Treasury Bench. It was clear that it had not even occurred to Ministers. The account by Yvette Cooper shows that not much has changed when it comes to male Ministers not taking account of maternity.

Almost a year from the start of the pandemic, Pregnant Then Screwed has been forced to take the Government to judicial review to tackle what appears to me to be blatant discrimination in the calculation of the self-employment income support scheme. I wish Joeli Brearley and her team all the very best in their challenge, but it should not have come to this. The UK Government have repeatedly been told about the flaws in the scheme. As with so many other issues, they have chosen to ignore those flaws and the women who have been excluded from the support schemes and disadvantaged. They must take action to put that right, regardless of what happens with the judicial review. It is simply not fair that women are losing out because they took time out of their business to look after their babies.

Bethany Power has also found that women on furlough have been told that they will lose their accrued annual leave as part of what has happened to them. The Government must correct that as soon as possible, because it is simply not right that women are losing out on their holidays because of how things have been calculated.

NHS exemption certificates should be extended for 12 months, because women have not been able to access the dental care they would usually get in the year after having their baby. That unfairness must also be addressed. They have been not been able to access the service because in many cases, dental services have been suspended.

There are so many more things I could say about maternity provision in this country, and so much more needs to be done. Maternity Action has been campaigning for a very long time to get those issues addressed. The Government are letting women down. Maternity should be a special time they get to spend with their wee one. It should not be a time of stress, poverty and wondering how to make ends meet. Too many women are still losing their jobs and being failed by their employers, but are not able to challenge that because of the structures the Government have put in place.

I urge the Government to act now on all those issues, and take them as seriously as they are taking this one case for one Minister. They should ensure that nobody gets left behind when they take maternity leave.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 2:44 pm, 11th February 2021

It is a pleasure to take part in the Second Reading debate on this Bill, in which we have heard contributions from so many trailblazing women. The two speeches that stood out for me were those from my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, who have really led the way in pioneering the idea of women being both parliamentarians and mothers. I also wish to put on record my best wishes and congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who have announced their pregnancies during this debate, and to the Attorney General, on her pregnancy. I hope she will be the first Minister in UK history to take full paid maternity leave.

We still have a long way to go, of course, and many of us are finding it difficult to understand how in 2021 Ministers are still having to make the decision between resignation or demotion when choosing to have children. Employment rights should not end at the doors of Parliament. Working mams in the Cabinet deserve the same maternity rights as working mams in any other job across the country, but, unfortunately, it is a sad fact that so many women across the UK still lack those basic rights. It is only when brave and formidable women, many of whom have taken part both virtually and physically in the Chamber today, have fought tooth and nail for progress that things have moved forward. Last year’s cross-party support for the proxy voting scheme came about only through the efforts of women MPs such as my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, who was forced to work in a wheelchair because of the lack of proxy voting provisions.

Labour has a proud history of fighting for equality, from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the introduction of the national minimum wage. All of those progressive pieces of equality legislation were delivered by Labour Governments. Labour’s Sure Start centres were a vital step forward in providing that lifeline of support to struggling parents and children right across the country. Regrettably, deep cuts to local councils over the past decade have hollowed out those services, leaving cash-strapped local authorities without family-centred support. Clearly, an awful lot of work remains to be done, but Members from across this House can agree that no one should be dissuaded from standing for elected office or becoming a Cabinet Minister by outdated employment practices. If we are to create a truly representative Parliament, encouraging women from all backgrounds to run for office, we must start by ensuring that no one is forced to choose between family and running for office. Rights and protections for elected women seem to be stuck in a different generation, and it is a scandal that councillors in local government are not guaranteed any rights to take any kind of parental leave. I am relieved that the Government have been spurred into action, but it has taken the pregnancy of a Cabinet Minister to get us to this point.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I have been following this debate with interest. Unfortunately, I was unable to speak in it, because I was in Committee. In a couple of months, it will be 12 years since I was the first Minister to have maternity cover; I took six months of maternity leave and I had a named cover. It is great news that we are finally getting something sorted now, so that maternity is much better organised, particularly for Cabinet Ministers.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

I thank my hon. Friend for that and for her support when I was expecting. It just goes to show that this is a debate that has had to come forward in baby steps. If we have learnt anything from the covid-19 crisis, it is that acting at a point of emergency is no way of bringing about good governance. With more lead-in time and perhaps more detailed consultation, this Bill could have included the right to paternity, adoption and premature baby leave. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to bring about these changes, I am disappointed that we are unable to make those significant strides forward today and I look forward to working with the Government on bringing them about in the future.

As the Centenary Action Group highlighted, this legislation must not be seen in a vacuum but instead as an opportunity for a call to action to protect parents in the workplace in these difficult times. In particular, covid-19 has already disrupted mothers’ careers more than fathers’ careers, with nearly 70% of women with children likely to have quit their jobs due to not being able to balance childcare and work, which compares with 16% of fathers. Women are more likely to be working in shut-down sectors, to have been furloughed and to have taken on more caring responsibilities while working from home. Citizens Advice has reported worrying cases of women being selected for redundancy due to the stringent health and safety measures required to keep them in work. We know that women, particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic women and disabled women, are over-represented in precarious labour, including part-time and zero-hours contracts, leaving them more vulnerable to redundancy. It is disappointing that the Government have yet to act on their commitment in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech to strengthen the legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents. I would be grateful if in her closing remarks the Minister provided an update on the employment Bill.

Following the announcement by the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer last March that pregnant women are clinically vulnerable, employers unable to make the necessary changes to ensure workplace safety were required to send them home on full pay, but we know that many pregnant women were unlawfully put on statutory sick pay, which has affected their maternity pay and other entitlements. I hope the Minister will address that in her closing remarks, and that she will confirm that the Government are committed to cross-party working to fill the gaps that remain in the Bill. Indeed, the Bill is already out of date, given that it does not include paternity, adoption or shared parental leave. Their inclusion would add great value to the legislation. Will the Minister also commit to working with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow on a wider discussion about the difficulty facing pregnant MPs, as well as councillors and representatives in the devolved bodies?

Turning to the wider situation of pregnant women across the country, the speed at which the Government are acting to make sure that the Attorney General can rightly take maternity leave is in stark contrast to their failure to support pregnant women facing discrimination and hardship throughout the pandemic. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s progress in providing vital protections for pregnant women at work?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General 2:51 pm, 11th February 2021

I start by offering my congratulations to the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) on their announcements today. I am sure the whole House sends all our good wishes to them. I am also sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General would want me, on the record, to thank all Members for their kind remarks about her and her—hopefully—impending maternity leave. I thank hon. Members for their kindness today and their contributions to this Second Reading debate.

The Bill before the House today is specific and limited in its aims. It will make an important and long overdue change to the law, enabling Ministers for the first time to take paid maternity leave from their job for an extended period. We have heard Members from all parts of the House welcome the measure.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I have listened to as much of the debate as I could this afternoon. Ministers have had maternity leave. We took it and said that it was something that women should have. We led on that. I was lucky enough to have as Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who championed proper maternity cover. It is absolutely right that we pass this Bill and put the provision on a proper footing, especially for people such as the Attorney General, but I think it is worth putting it on the record that it is not completely unprecedented.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I am glad I took that intervention. This afternoon, we have heard from the hon. Lady and Rachel Reeves—for whose support for the Bill I am grateful—as well as Ms Harman about the trailblazers who have gone before us. We have heard about the battles and trials that colleagues past and present have gone through in order to get maternity leave and to improve the situation for their colleagues in the future. We all appreciated the speech from the hon. Member for Leeds West in which she cited many colleagues who have made a substantial contribution. As well as those Members past and present who have battled to improve arrangements, we should remember that what we are doing today, although it is narrow in immediately affecting only a few individuals, will also benefit those who come after us. That is important.

Cat Smith referred to the wider context. It is of course vital that we get this right for everyone in the country, and I know that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking into these issues. It is not only a matter of fairness and justice but a matter of economic empowerment. If we are to get the country back on its feet after the year we have had, we have to support women and enable them to do that.

I also thank Her Majesty’s Opposition and other parties in the House for the cross-party support and commitment that we have for the other work that we know needs to be done. I know that this is a very narrow Bill. The technical consultee is the Leader of the Opposition, but he will clearly wish to delegate to other Front Benchers and, potentially, to Back Benchers as well. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will contribute to the work that will follow. It is vital that we get those other issues addressed and, although I cannot give a timetable on legislation because we do not know what legislation would be required, I think we should be bringing this back to the House before the summer recess in order to address those other issues.

I thank my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes for the powerful report that her Committee has produced and for her support. I hope that her Committee will be able to play a role in the future work that looks at the wider issues, not just for Front Benchers but for all Members, particularly those who sit on the Back Benches.

Kirsten Oswald clearly referred to the Prime Minister’s power to enable people to benefit from the new provision that we are introducing today. Unfortunately, the power still has to sit with the Prime Minister. I know that the optics of that are not ideal, but I am afraid that this is hinged on the royal prerogative and that must be the case. Hon. Members mentioned various other amendments that have been tabled, and I will address those in Committee.

My hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory focused on how maternity leave is a vital time. The Government very much recognise that, which is why we have the piece of work that my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom is undertaking on early years. The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who has been such a stalwart in campaigning on these issues, outlined why, as well as the main issues that the Bill focuses on, it is vital that we get this right for women outside the House too.

I thank my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price for the helpful amendment that she has tabled. Again, I will explain in Committee why it has not been possible to use that language in the Bill with regard to Ministers—we have been able to use language to describe Opposition office holders—but I understand how offensive the word “person” or “persons” can be in this context. I hope that we can make some changes, if not to the legislation then to the explanatory notes, that will address some of her issues. I will come on to the detail of that in Committee.

Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I am sorry that she framed this measure as a perk. Just to clarify, this is not about rights purely for Cabinet Ministers—well, they are not rights; it is a provision. The article in The Guardian today also misrepresented that. This is a provision not just for Cabinet Ministers but for all Ministers and those Opposition posts. Only Cabinet Ministers are prevented at the moment from taking maternity leave, so that is what the Bill tries to address.

I hope that I can give the hon. Lady some assurances on the work that we want to take forward with regard to the Women and Equalities Committee and IPSA. Although, clearly, there will be other consultees involved, as well as the Government, with regard to IPSA she is absolutely right that we have to address the remaining issues both for Ministers and for all Members of the House. She has certainly set us a timetable today to try to get that resolved, and I hope to give some clarity on that later. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is vital that we get these issues right. I also want to give some assurances on the issues that have been raised about fathers. This is absolutely vital. I was brought up by my father in my teenage years. Fathers are critical. We will bring that forward in our future work. We will look at paternity leave, shared parental leave, adoption leave and a raft of other issues to ensure that all Members of this House, at whatever stage of their career and whatever Bench they sit on—Front Bench or Back Bench—can have the flexibility they need to thrive in their careers, and have and raise a family. I look forward to the future debates on that subject.

The Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

Further proceedings on the Bill stood postponed (Order, this day).