The thrust of the Bill is long overdue and much needed, and to that extent, it should be welcomed. For far too long, an artificial and arbitrary barrier has been put in front of women who wish to serve their constituents in government. It has been a case of naked discrimination hiding in plain sight. By allowing the Prime Minister to designate a Minister on leave, we will in some respects be bringing the world of public office in line with the world of work. It should go without saying that we should be an exemplar of workplace rights, but in truth, this place has all too often treated the many women elected to it as an irritant or an afterthought.
I still have many reservations about the Bill. Why, for instance, have the Government wasted this opportunity by making the Bill applicable only to Cabinet-level positions? If we want to see a Government and legislature that reflect our wider society, they must be a welcoming place for all those who work across them. The Government should revisit that aspect of the Bill and correct it immediately because, by continuing with such glaring gaps in the system, we are sending out a dangerous message to employees across the UK. We are saying that it is okay to think of women as secondary to the needs of the organisation, that a token effort is effort enough, that protecting the management is a job well done and that women should be grateful for whatever small breaks are afforded them. That type of thinking leads us further down a path where women are de facto excluded from decision-making roles and positions of power, while needlessly snuffing out the aspirations of future generations.
It is all well and good speaking in abstracts, but for me, this Bill is also very personal. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am both an expectant first-time mother and a first-time MP. When I stood for election, I did so because I wanted to do right by my constituents in Parliament and to stand up for a set of principles that should transcend party politics. And yet, as a Member of Parliament, with all the vast opportunity and privilege that that affords me, I am scared. I am scared about taking informal maternity leave when my baby arrives in two months; it is informal as there is no formalised maternity leave for Back-Bench MPs. I am scared that it will be used against me politically and, most depressing of all, I am scared that, beneath the warm words of good luck and congratulations, some Members will take a dim view of my taking maternity leave at all.
Today we need to fix immediately the fundamental failing of the Bill before us, even while accepting its fundamental necessity. We must view this as a chance not to fix a problem for a Minister but to right a wrong for countless women—Members and staff—and start changing the culture around maternity rights in this place. We can send a signal to all employers that this is not just the right thing to do here; it is simply the right thing to do. That is where the majority of the country is. It is time that Parliament starts to follow in the nation’s footsteps and recognise the huge benefit that women bring to this workplace and countless others.