It is a pleasure to take part in the Second Reading debate on this Bill, in which we have heard contributions from so many trailblazing women. The two speeches that stood out for me were those from my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, who have really led the way in pioneering the idea of women being both parliamentarians and mothers. I also wish to put on record my best wishes and congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who have announced their pregnancies during this debate, and to the Attorney General, on her pregnancy. I hope she will be the first Minister in UK history to take full paid maternity leave.
We still have a long way to go, of course, and many of us are finding it difficult to understand how in 2021 Ministers are still having to make the decision between resignation or demotion when choosing to have children. Employment rights should not end at the doors of Parliament. Working mams in the Cabinet deserve the same maternity rights as working mams in any other job across the country, but, unfortunately, it is a sad fact that so many women across the UK still lack those basic rights. It is only when brave and formidable women, many of whom have taken part both virtually and physically in the Chamber today, have fought tooth and nail for progress that things have moved forward. Last year’s cross-party support for the proxy voting scheme came about only through the efforts of women MPs such as my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, who was forced to work in a wheelchair because of the lack of proxy voting provisions.
Labour has a proud history of fighting for equality, from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the introduction of the national minimum wage. All of those progressive pieces of equality legislation were delivered by Labour Governments. Labour’s Sure Start centres were a vital step forward in providing that lifeline of support to struggling parents and children right across the country. Regrettably, deep cuts to local councils over the past decade have hollowed out those services, leaving cash-strapped local authorities without family-centred support. Clearly, an awful lot of work remains to be done, but Members from across this House can agree that no one should be dissuaded from standing for elected office or becoming a Cabinet Minister by outdated employment practices. If we are to create a truly representative Parliament, encouraging women from all backgrounds to run for office, we must start by ensuring that no one is forced to choose between family and running for office. Rights and protections for elected women seem to be stuck in a different generation, and it is a scandal that councillors in local government are not guaranteed any rights to take any kind of parental leave. I am relieved that the Government have been spurred into action, but it has taken the pregnancy of a Cabinet Minister to get us to this point.