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.