Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:55 pm on 11th February 2021.

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

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.