Clause 1 - Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office

Part of Ministerial and other Maternal Allowances Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:02 pm on 11th February 2021.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 3:02 pm, 11th February 2021

I am pleased to move the amendments that stand in my name, and also to confirm my support for new clause 1 in the name of Stella Creasy and others.

In the time available to us—which, as I think has been acknowledged many times from those in all parts of the House, does not allow for full consideration of the Bill’s defects and omissions—it is important that the Committee sets out clearly what it believes the direction of travel should be on this issue. The general principle of the House addressing issues of maternity leave is important, although the devil will clearly be in the promised detail, and we will all be watching for the progress that has been discussed by so many Members.

As it stands, this halfway house of a Bill provides for maternity leave in specific circumstances, but as the Minister herself noted, only with the by-your-leave of the Prime Minister, and only for a maximum of six months. That is not really what we should be endorsing as a long-term solution to the present inadequate situation. Indeed, it should not even be a medium-term solution. That is why the SNP tabled these amendments, and why we are happy to support new clause 1 in addition.

It is inconceivable that if an equalities impact assessment had been done, the Bill would have seen the light of day in its current form. I look forward to such an assessment being completed before we return to this issue. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, we have barely scratched the surface of the issues that we need to address if policy is to deal with the proper engagement of those in public life with family life.

Amendment 2 was tabled because the approach adopted in the Bill is wrong. It is unhelpful to those of us who want to address the significant structural issues that exist. I know that there are many on the Government Benches who would like us to revise our approach, who see the international standards on human rights as inconvenient and who perhaps hanker after days when this House and the Government it supported decided who deserved which treatment or benefit and who did not. But we have moved beyond that, as is recognised in the European convention on human rights statement at the head of the Bill. As a matter of principle, we recognise that women should not be discriminated against in the workplace, including on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity.

The Bill, as drafted, envisages that the Prime Minister would—in theory—be entitled to withhold maternity leave from a woman even when she was within 12 weeks of the expected week of birth or within four weeks of having given birth. As a matter of principle, that is wrong. No appeal to how reasonable Prime Ministers would deal with this is satisfactory enough for us to accept such a defect in the Bill. The right to maternity leave is important because it shows the value that society places on our right to family life. That is more fundamental than the role we play in the workplace, no matter how important or exalted our role may be.

There is a macho view that seems to value the idea that we should all work right up until the days of giving birth, particularly if we are in high-powered jobs, and the understanding is that we should return just as quickly. That is to misunderstand the importance for most families—for parents and children—of that vital transitional period from pregnancy through to early parenthood. As one Member said earlier, it also misunderstands the colossal impact of pregnancy and parenthood on life more broadly. I echo what my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss said about the importance of supporting new parents in the early years, and this House has a role to play in setting an example.

While there may be mothers and families for whom a speedy period of maternity leave works, and they are entitled to choose that route if they wish, it is absolutely not our job here to put into place or to perpetuate policies that make that seem the norm. That can only be detrimental to families across the country. We really need to look forward. We need to accept that things are simply not good enough here for Ministers, MPs or, as we have heard, members of staff.

More broadly—this cannot be emphasised enough—we cannot leave this debate thinking that maternity leave is all working well away from this place. I mentioned earlier the terrifying statistic that over 60% of women who took part in the Pregnant Then Screwed survey last year believe that their redundancy is because of their maternity leave. That is a shocking statistic, and it should cause us to reflect seriously on the situation affecting these women.

The poor state of statutory pay must not be left behind in this discussion either. We cannot just deal with one person, however sensible it is to put this provision in place, and leave everyone else hanging on by their fingertips because of the impossible financial provisions that they have to deal with. The effect of that kind of financial pressure and the lack of support can be seen in how many women do not take up their full entitlement to maternity leave. In its recent report, “The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave”, the Petitions Committee noted:

“It appears then that current entitlements are only generous to those who can afford to use them.”

We should reflect on that point. Covid and the precarious nature of so many employment relationships at present bring into sharp focus the need for proper provisions for maternity leave, parental leave and the support that families need at this particularly difficult time, which will also be so vital as we move forward out of the pandemic.

The Petitions Committee also highlighted research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2008, which suggested that less than a quarter—23%—of mothers taking maternity leave took the full 52 weeks. Only 45% took 40 weeks or more, and I suspect it is unlikely that the situation has improved significantly since then.

The reason for tabling amendment 3 is that an organisation of the scale of the UK Government should not add to that pressure by adopting a standard that says to women, “Your maternity leave is a benefit that may or may not be conferred by your boss,” who in this case is the Prime Minister. Through legislation, we should aim to reflect the standard that we expect Government to meet, which is that women are entitled to their maternity leave and organisations need to put in place proper mechanisms for supporting that.

On the wider front, this House needs to act on the continued abuse of pregnancy as an opportunity to disadvantage in the workplace, whether financially or even by removing people from their posts. That issue also affects those taking parental leave and those with family and caring responsibilities, particularly for young children, which Members on all sides have called on the Minister to look at.

That brings me to the second issue raised in the amendments tabled by the SNP, which is the duration of leave. A simple click on the website would have told the drafters of the Bill that statutory maternity leave in the UK is 52 weeks, split into two chunks of 26 weeks. It is not clear to me why the starting point for the arrangements for designating a Minister on leave was taken to be six months instead of 12 months, and it does not speak well of what we are saying to the outside world.

Perhaps the only way to solve that mystery is to notice that there might be a pattern to the Government’s behaviour. In order to win support, they talk about the new freedoms that the UK apparently now enjoys, casting them as an opportunity to set our own standards, free from outside interference, and to set them standards higher. However, when a choice needs to be made as to whether to go for higher or lower standards, the instinct of the UK Government is to go low—to reduce standards, or to fail to act as they should.

That has been clearly shown by the dither and delay following the Government’s defeat in the High Court on the subject of personal protective equipment and health and safety protection for limb (b) workers. That growing part of our workforce, who find themselves with significantly fewer rights than their directly employed colleagues, now find that the Government are failing to act. Many of these precarious workers may find it even more challenging to deal with issues of maternity.

Those of us who are committed to maintaining high standards, whether in the field of employment, the environment or consumer rights, need to be on our guard here, or slowly but surely, hard-won protections we have enjoyed for many years will be reduced or swept away in pursuit of the so-called flexibility that we are now being told is what the UK needs as it pursues life beyond Brexit.

The amendments are about setting a marker. We can see, working from the most vulnerable members of our workforce right up to the Cabinet table, that change can be seen as an opportunity to roll back the clock and reduce and reset established rights. The Scottish National party does not consent to that process.

I will comment briefly on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow. Her amendment 2 seems to offer appropriate clarification of an aspect of support for Opposition Members. It addresses the issue of someone being disadvantaged as a result of change in circumstance while on maternity leave, which strikes me as an important principle. While on maternity leave, we should not be concerned about the impact of changes at work, so I am happy to support that amendment. I ask the Minister to look at embedding the principle of no detriment in future action in this area.

There is no doubt that an equalities impact assessment is a vital way of dealing with some of the issues with the Bill. The recent Petitions Committee report that we have spoken about highlights some of the issues that need to be addressed when introducing reforms in this area. Recognising that the eyes of the country will be on the changes, we need to avoid creating a two-tier system. We cannot have a good system for Ministers and holders of other high-powered posts and a second-rate system for everyone else.

An equality impact assessment might have thrown up the need to address some of the wider issues in order to avoid that two-tier perception. It would also have highlighted that parental leave more broadly is vital to shattering the glass ceiling, and that too many barriers are still in place relating to caring responsibilities. When this Bill comes back, as the Minister has promised it will, it needs to address those issues.

If we had the equality impact assessment, we might also have noted that wider action is needed to increase the uptake of maternity leave to closer to the one-year statutory limit, because so many parents cannot afford to take the leave to which they are entitled. To address that gap between entitlement and uptake in the wider workforce, it is clear that maternity pay needs to increase, with the SNP proposing 100% of average weekly earnings for the first 12 weeks, then 90% or £150 for 40 weeks, whichever is lower.

The impact assessment would have surely also addressed the need to reform shared parental leave to increase uptake by fathers, only a very small proportion of whom currently take up their entitlement. It would have also highlighted that perhaps the best way to increase the uptake of those rights is by increasing the statutory weeks allowed and increasing the weekly rate of paternity pay.

Overall, the Bill has served two functions thus far. First, it has brought provision for maternity arrangements for Ministers and others up to date and to where it needs to be in some ways, but it seems to be widely appreciated that that can be only a stopgap measure because of the restrictions that still exist. I am pleased that the Minister seems to be committing to bringing back something further before the summer; I would like to hear that commitment loudly and clearly. Secondly, we must acknowledge that the Bill has shone a light on how many issues need to be addressed broadly in this subject area in this House and across the workforce in all our communities. That is perhaps the most useful thing that it has done.