Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 11th February 2021.

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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.