Clause 1 - Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office

Part of Ministerial and other Maternal Allowances Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 11th February 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 3:45 pm, 11th February 2021

I thank my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General for bringing this Bill before us today. It is highly unlikely to affect me personally, as my daughter is six and I have a very supportive family, but even with a six-year-old being a full-time working mum is a huge juggling act. I have massive admiration for mums in general, for all working mums and absolutely for any colleague who has a baby while doing this job. But why do I feel like that? Why do I not have the same feeling for my male colleagues who welcome a newborn? There have been a few of those this year.

I am sorry to say that despite how far we have come and despite how much more hands-on dads and partners are these days, the majority of the domestic load around babies and small children is still being carried by women. I will quickly caveat that by saying that all families are different and there are many families where that is not the case, but by and large women are still in charge of this mental load. We must explore in this House, and in debate more widely, the evolving role of fathers and partners, and how we can possibly improve the equality of pregnant women without looking at families as a whole. Looking into the debate on maternity leave as a whole means looking at the impact on our work and family life. Do we value family life at the expense of work? Do we look at work at the expense of family life? At the moment, I do not think we have that balance right, and covid has emphasised that. Society is starting to look at this a lot more, and Government will be well placed to encourage a society that promotes family life. Stable families, whatever shape they take, are good for society and improve life chances. We should promote best practice by companies, and ensure by doing it in this place that we lead by example. It starts with maternity leave, but goes on to much more.

As I said on Second Reading, as co-chair of the all-party group for baby loss I have a special interest in the health of mother and baby. The Bill is a step forward in improving the condition of both, and the Government are setting an example in that the health of mum and baby come first. Unfortunately, one in four pregnancies end in tragic loss. According to the Office for National Statistics, the stillbirth rate in England in 2018 was the lowest on record, but was still four stillbirths per 100,000 births. If my maths is correct, that equates to 2,500 stillborn babies. I am pleased to see that stillbirth is considered in clauses 1(4) and 4(7). In the event of a stillbirth, or if the baby is born alive and later dies, even after a few seconds, or if this happens after the 24th week of pregnancy, you are entitled to all maternity rights. If you are already on maternity leave, you do not have to take any action, but if the birth happens before you intended to start maternity leave or before you gave notice of maternity leave to your employer, the maternity leave will start the day of the birth—and so on and so forth. However, what happens if the baby dies before the 24th week?

My baby died at 21 weeks. Without going into the painful details again, little chance of quality of life was given for my daughter, so we were given very little choice but to terminate and then to deliver. In the fog of that weekend, I remember asking what would happen if I chose not to terminate. I was told that my baby would probably die within minutes of being born and that it would be more traumatic for me and for my baby; the midwives would have to stay with her and no one knew how long it would take. The point I am trying to make is that it was within my rights to refuse a termination but to deliver early. Had I taken that option, in theory I would have been eligible for full maternity leave, but because I terminated I was not. My baby, if I had not terminated, would have had a birth certificate and a death certificate. She has neither.

I am not asking for a change in the law, but I do expect the Government and employers to recognise that a loss, even before 24 weeks, as the result of a termination that we did not want to happen, is just as painful as a full-term stillbirth. I genuinely cannot say whether I would have wanted to take full maternity leave. What on earth would I have done for months on end, with no new baby to take home? But it might have taken the pressure off. Luckily, I had an understanding employer, but I still had to keep producing doctor’s notes and sick notes every few weeks until I had recovered physically from the birth and while I was still grieving. Every time the deadline approached, I felt the pressure of wondering whether I should ask for another sick note, or go back to work.

Moving on from that, I want to discuss the amendments standing in the names of my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price and my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes. It is important to me that hard-fought rights achieved by women who have gone before me are not removed from the statute book. Otherwise, some women may feel that with this Bill we are taking one step forward and one step back simultaneously, on the same day. I am pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will address this—she mentioned the explanatory notes, and I look forward to hearing more—but it is important that compassion dictates how we draft legislation. I do not believe that we should allow one group of people to be pitted against another.

I am privileged to be assisting my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom in her work preparing the forthcoming early years review. In the review, we have referred to “parent” or “carer”, as that reflects the nature of families today. However, as it stands, it is a biological woman who is pregnant and gives birth, so it is probably best that that is represented in a Bill that is devoted wholly to provision for maternity—the act of becoming a mother. It is not necessarily a debate we want to have today, and many right hon. and hon. Members who are not present would want to participate in such a debate on all sides, but it will come. I am sure that the mother of all Parliaments will debate the subject robustly and that a compassionate way forward will be found. I have absolutely no doubt about that.

Stella Creasy is correct to say that we will not have total equality for pregnant women without the support of the men in this House, the support of all employers and the support of society as a whole. Pregnancy should not be seen as a nuisance or an annoyance but a normal part of life. When it goes well, it should be celebrated as a precious time of life.

Mothers in the UK are currently only entitled to the equivalent of 12 weeks’ fully paid statutory maternity leave, and I am afraid to say that our statutory offering falls behind many comparable economies. Thus, a third of our children are in childcare between the ages of nought and three, and that rises to about three quarters between the ages of three and six. Meanwhile, in countries such as Sweden and Norway, women are allowed 35 to 45 weeks’ fully paid maternity leave, and men are allowed around 10 weeks’ paternity leave. In Estonia, women get 85 weeks’ fully paid maternity leave.

Many UK companies do much better, and some women can take up to a year fully paid or anywhere in between. Despite that, many women are being laid open to discrimination. While the law does recognise that pregnant women and women on maternity leave are at risk of experiencing discrimination, the concern raised by many is that it does not go anywhere near far enough. I know savvy women who have fantastic maternity provision written into their contracts, but women should not have to do this. The onus should not necessarily be on the woman, confident or otherwise, to negotiate such a contract.

Unfortunately, the level of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the UK is still astonishing, with an estimated 54,000 mothers every year being forced to leave their jobs because of how they were treated during their pregnancy or maternity leave or after they returned to work. Over three quarters of women and new mothers each year experience some form of pregnancy or maternity discrimination at work, and I return to how this affects stress levels in pregnancy. We must not underestimate the fact that sustained stress levels within a pregnancy are hugely risky for the mum and the unborn baby. It can lead to pregnancy loss, low birth weight and post-natal depression.

As I said earlier, this is not helped by the particular nature of what we do in this place. I was upset to hear from Members on both sides of the House about the abuse that female colleagues have received when they have taken time off to spend with their newborn. I fully believe that MPs come into this House to do their best for their constituents, and I would like to remind the House and wider society that MPs are human beings. MPs are pregnant, as we have learned today, and I congratulate all involved. MPs are new mums. They are wives. They are daughters. They are sisters. They are grandmothers. They are friends. They are mums.

It is unacceptable for any new mother to feel the extra pressure of being told that they are skiving, they are not working hard enough and they should not be having a baby while serving in office. Female MPs in particular are at the receiving end of awful abuse these days, and it has stepped up even more for those who are pregnant and new mums. We should not accept this—there should be zero tolerance—and I hope that in this House, we are united in feeling that way.

Post-natal depression, left unchecked, can and does lead to tragic suicide. Do we really need to wait for a female MP who has post-natal depression to be pushed too far before society takes notice? Will that be the next horrible headline we read—that one of our colleagues in this place has not been able to cope with all the pressure put her way and feels like she is not being a good enough mother or a good enough MP, because she is trying her best to do both? MPs are not alone in suffering from post-natal depression, and I am sure none would wish for special treatment. When post-natal depression hits you, you do not even realise you are in it until somebody points it out to you. MPs are a special target for anger from some, and it is completely unacceptable.

As I said in my speech last October, birth and pregnancy have always been perilous for women. That remains the case, yet we no longer talk about it, and that needs to change. At every opportunity that I get in this place—whether it is a maternity Bill or legislation on employment rights or other women’s rights—I will stand up for women who have lost their children and not talked about it or who feel so much pressure that they end up suffering from post-natal depression, which pushes them to the edge. We can only do this as a society when we back each other up. The Bill sends an important signal to society and women that the contributions we make to this Parliament as female MPs are valued at every stage of our lives. The Bill will give hope to young women who want to go into politics that their contribution, whatever stage in their life it is at, is valuable. It is important that we make a move, and I look forward to working with colleagues to improve conditions for all mums and mums-to-be.