I congratulate the Attorney-General on her pregnancy and on being the first Cabinet Minister to take maternity leave. It is 20 years ago this summer since I was the first Minister to take maternity leave, and it is quite astonishing that it has taken two decades for a Cabinet Minister to be able to do the same. Three male Prime Ministers and a Chancellor have had new babies in recent years, but no women in the Cabinet have done so until now. So this is a step forward, and of course Ministers should be able to take maternity leave and have maternity cover, and if we want it to be normal across the economy and society, we have to show that it is possible in Government.
I welcome this legislation, but it is limited. Even within Government, it does not provide for fathers to do their bit in the family in those early months or cover adoption leave. It does not cover parliamentary issues and, really importantly, it does not cover councillors, with the Fawcett Society saying that just 7% of councils have a maternity policy in place. Of course, importantly, it does not deal with the ongoing and unfair discrimination that still happens in practice against women in so many different workplaces across the country, because the systems for protecting maternity rights are still too weak.
When I needed to take maternity leave as the Minister for Public Health in 2001, I asked the Health Secretary what I should do. He did not know, and said, “Ask the Prime Minister.” He did not know, and said, “Ask the Cabinet Secretary.” He had absolutely no idea, and as Ministers are Crown appointments, he said it was really a matter for the Queen, but nobody thought we should be asking Her Majesty. We then tried to work something out that was similar to civil servants’ arrangements. We did not get it all right, and the lack of proper cover arrangements caused difficulties, and while the Health Department was really supportive, that informal approach proved inadequate a few years later when I took maternity leave again. The Communities Department was not as supportive, and I had to struggle to get basic arrangements in place.
When we were drawing up those arrangements, no one had thought about this before. That was bad enough 20 years ago, but we have no excuse for a short-term, reactive approach now. The rushed and limited nature of this Bill shows that Government are still doing the same, despite the fact that many Ministers and many parliamentarians have needed to take maternity leave since then. This kind of reactive approach is, I think, still discouraging women from coming forward into public life, and that is bad for democracy. It still risks being discriminatory, particularly for councillors, but perhaps most importantly of all, it shows that at the heart of government, the civil service and Parliament, maternity arrangements for everyone still are not really being taken seriously enough.
It is great that the first Cabinet Minister is taking maternity leave and it is good that the Government have brought forward legislation to make it happen, but it is time we had a more comprehensive approach to make sure that maternity and paternity leave can be a normal part of everyone’s lives. We need a timetable from the Government about when they are going to address some of the political and Government issues in relation to Parliament, but also to look at councillors. Most importantly of all, we need action against the maternity discrimination that is still taking place, often highlighted during the covid crisis, but also deeply rooted in too many workplaces right across the country, so that many more women can properly be able to keep on working and support their families, and many more fathers can support them in doing so as well.