Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:27 pm on 11th February 2021.

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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.