Clause 1 - Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office

Part of Ministerial and other Maternal Allowances Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 11th February 2021.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 3:15 pm, 11th February 2021

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. At this point I pay tribute to Siobhan Baillie, who found herself being abused because she was on maternity leave. She was also abused by members of my own party. I remonstrated with them, pointing out that that was not the progressive approach to take.

My concern about the hon. Member for Stroud, and why the legislation is a missed opportunity, is that she sought to get cover. She was an MP who, like me, tried to get a locum. I had a fantastic locum. In fact, my locum, Kizzy Gardiner, was too good. People in Walthamstow were desperate to keep her, because she was an absolutely fantastic example of why maternity cover matters. Nobody in my constituency batted an eyelid about having someone else not just doing casework, but out there representing our community, working with groups, going into local schools before lockdown happened, and then when the lockdown happened, leading on that role. Watching the hon. Lady being abused and attacked, and watching her also trying to cope with those first few weeks of having a new baby alone, fired my enthusiasm on this. We cannot sit around in this place, watching as other people get those issues right, but failing to take action ourselves.

It is not by accident that the number of times pregnant women end up in this place, or in local government or in the Assemblies, are few and far between. That is one issue that an equalities impact assessment can take a look at. We all talk about wanting to get more diverse people into our politics. Sometimes the barriers to that are blindingly obvious. I know from talking to colleagues in local government just how frustrated they are. I know from talking to colleagues in other devolved Administrations just how frustrated they are.

When we pass legislation in this House, such as this Bill, we cannot be blind to the message that we are sending about how we have determined who is important enough to have that leave. If we think that is not something that should be bestowed as a discretionary pleasure, or as a benefit like a company car, then we also have to recognise the consequences of behaving like that, not just here but in other places as well. If we want to ensure that there is no trade-off between family life and public life for either men or women, we must look at the message we are sending. The honest truth is that this legislation, as it stands, sends a message that a two-tier system is acceptable.

Consider for a moment what would happen were we to look at local government and say, “Well, it’s okay for just cabinet members in local government to have maternity leave”. We would be horrified for young female councillors, or indeed for young men who want to be good fathers and spend time with their children, and want to be supportive partners, yet that is exactly what we are doing here. Frankly, in no other workplace would this be acceptable. If someone came to us in our constituency offices and said, “This is the experience in my workplace”, we would say, “Well, that’s clearly breaching various regulations. We must support you. We must get you trade union representation.” I am very proud of the trade unions, which I know have made representations on this issue already.

An equalities impact assessment would allow us to look at what the consequences of only acting for 115 women are, and what that means for the broader conversation about public life in this country, because we know the pace of change is agonisingly slow. We celebrate a third of women in this place—a third. In my time—I have been here for 10 years; I am heading towards grandee status—at that rate, we will never get parity, and we will certainly never get women to come in at younger age if we do not tackle these issues.

We also cannot be blind—an impact assessment would allow us to look at these issues—about what message we are sending to workplaces across this country. There is a tsunami of mum unemployment taking place in this country because of the pandemic. The reason we protect certain characteristics and the reason we say that pregnancy, separate from sex or gender, is something that we protect is that we know that, if employers—bad employers—are given the opportunity, the first ones out of the door are the employees they think are more complicated. What an economic fallacy. We know that countries that make sure that it is easy to have combined family life and work life are more prosperous. They are more resilient and they are better able to cope with the modern world. So a failure to recognise the message we are sending to employers has ramifications far beyond this place.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry said that maternity and pregnancy discrimination was one of the

“most urgent, immediate threats to equality” of the pandemic, yet in this place, if this is the only piece of legislation we have discussed in the last year that even touches on maternity, what message are we sending to those thousands of women who are facing these issues right now? They are in every one of our constituencies. Every one of them would say, “Hang on a minute. I just want what you have” to a Minister and “I just want to be able to take paid maternity leave and be confident I can still go back to a job at the end of it.” That should be a simple ask, but this legislation would allow an employer to say, “Hang on a minute. Actually, are you senior enough in your position for us really to provide that?”

We know there is a piece of work to do with employers: 40% of employers say they would avoid hiring a woman of childbearing age—that is not an ancient statistic; that is a recent one—and 40% of employers claim they have seen at least one pregnant woman “take advantage” of their pregnancy. What environment are we asking women to go into when we are saying that that is unacceptable for Ministers, and I completely agree, and why are we not saying that for every woman in this country? Why are we not saying that the use of non-disclosure agreements, something the right hon. Member for Basingstoke has so powerfully revealed, to hide pregnancy discrimination is unacceptable? Yet this legislation does not touch on any of those issues, but it sends messages about what is acceptable. That is why we need to have an equalities impact assessment.

I pay tribute to Joeli Brearley and Pregnant Then Screwed because, as a small operation, they have had a mighty impact on our understanding of just how much women who are pregnant and new mothers are suffering during this pandemic. The work they have done to uncover the inequalities and the impact of legislation, or lack of impact, has been absolutely staggering. Frankly, it is a source of shame to me that our Government are being taken to court by them because of our failure as a legislature to introduce a system on self-employment support that recognises the very simple principle that, during the three years that they calculate that self-employment support, some women might have taken maternity leave so their income will have varied.

The failure to be able to deal with that and the fact that it has ended up in court, where we all know the Government will be banged to rights on it—we will end up paying court costs for it, and 80,000 women are affected: self-employed people who are terrified about what income they might have in the current pandemic at the best of times—speaks to the challenges that we have and speaks to the absence of any alternative legislation from this Government, as opposed to this piece of legislation. [Interruption.] I can see the Paymaster General nodding. I hope that she will go back to the Treasury and pointedly highlight just how embarrassing it is that we cannot even recognise that maternity leave should be part of a calculation, and ensure that we do not discriminate against women accordingly.

The UK has some of the poorest maternity and paternity leave policies in Europe. UNICEF says that we are one of the least family-friendly countries in Europe. To all those in this House who wax lyrical—this might come up today—about the importance of family and the importance of motherhood, I say what I have said before: it is deeds, not words, that matter. They cannot sit here and tell me that they are obsessed with the word “motherhood”, and then fail to act to support us being better at providing paid maternity and paternity leave. Our economic competitors beat us time and again. We treat fathers as an afterthought—something that this legislation takes no account of. An equality impact assessment would allow us to explore these issues.