The SDLP certainly welcomes this move in the right direction but, like others, we have some disappointment that the principle of a woman being able to take maternity leave has required speedy legislation to be put right. This should have been addressed earlier; the gap has been apparent for a while and it should have been addressed more comprehensively and systematically. This should not hinge on the situation, the pregnancy or the career of any individual having to be so intrusively and widely discussed. The swift action to correct the situation when it affects a member of the governing party’s top team feels like a contrast with the response to the rights and needs of other pregnant women and mothers in wider society.
The fact that this legislation is “just in time”, to borrow a topical phrase, is an illustration of the archaic nature of some aspects of this institution, and of the reforms that are needed to ensure that political and Government structures are fit for purpose and have equality at their core. It would be glossing over a wide range of complex structural and cultural issues to imply that fixes such as this will magically open up political opportunity to many more parents, but if correctly done, this Bill could address one of the chill factors for those who either have or are planning families, and it would be a small but visible example of Parliament actively enshrining fairness. Whatever a woman’s job might be, taking a reasonable amount of time off to have a baby should not be a perk and should not be something that has to be negotiated; it should be a right.
As others have mentioned, MPs are not employees but officeholders, and as a result are excluded from some standard maternity rights. Many self-employed women face similar penalties in relation to maternity-linked lost earnings in terms of the self-employed income support that has been available earlier this year and last year. I want to highlight the fact that we need to stop thinking about childbirth and motherhood as some sort of random occurrence or curiosity, but rather as reality—and happy reality for a very large part of the working population. It is also worth saying that the devolved institutions and councils, including the Assembly, where I previously served, are not doing very much better in this regard, and I hope that the discussion we are having today catalyses change there too.
The debate has been genuinely informative, particularly the engaging potted history of trailblazers in this regard from Rachel Reeves. I want to commend other Members, including Mrs Miller, and I hope that the Government will apply rigour and adopt her proposals on non-discrimination for new mums. I also commend Stella Creasy, who has been relentless in her campaigning for the rights of other parliamentarians.
The terms and conditions that are offered in the Bill contrast favourably with those offered to other public servants, and this highlights the paucity of offering for NHS staff doctors, for example, who are entitled to only eight weeks’ full pay, or for teachers, who, certainly here in Northern Ireland, are entitled to only four weeks’ full pay. Of course, the situation is much worse for people in other sectors, and tragically so for people in the gig economy. That is the sort of levelling-up agenda that we need the Government to actively pursue. We concede that the Government have moved fast because they want to, but they need to deploy the same speed and core purpose to raising standards for all working parents and, of course, to broadening this out to adoption and to paternity leave as well. We need to make this place not a place apart but a modern workforce reflecting the whole population.