Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 11th February 2021.

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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 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faced over the decades, and to talk about why it is so important that we continue to modernise some of our, frankly, outdated working practices.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.