Clause 1 - Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office

Part of Ministerial and other Maternal Allowances Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 11th February 2021.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:15 pm, 11th February 2021

I entirely agree. Indeed, earlier I joked that this legislation brings us not into the 21st century, but into the 1990s. When I was a police officer, doing equality impact assessments, whether for operations we were carrying out or for anything else that was planned, was very much part of that. So it is disappointing that we are not seeing that in this place.

That lack of focus on equalities has become apparent over the past year, during the pandemic, and it is really disappointing. The hon. Member for Glasgow North mentioned my Liberal Democrat colleague Jo Swinson, who worked not only on parental leave but on gender pay gap reporting, which was one of the first business requirements to be jettisoned during the pandemic, and as yet there are no plans for its return.

When we watch the frequent Downing Street press conferences, it is usually a man we see at the lectern. These are potentially disappointing messages that the Government are sending out. In contrast, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, and I note the recent findings of the Women and Equalities Committee in that regard. Again, the hon. Member for Walthamstow spoke powerfully about this earlier. I, too, commend the work of Pregnant Then Screwed and wish them success in their case, but obviously I am saddened that it has got to that stage.

The Government talk a lot about levelling up, but clearly there is work to be done to get their own house in order when it comes to gender equality, both internally and in relation to the impact of their policies across the country. That is why I was very happy to co-sign new clause 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, which calls for that equalities impact assessment for this legislation, as she described so eloquently.

There has been progress over the past 10 years. Thanks to the efforts of Jo Swinson, we now have shared parental leave, which has been an incredible success, and I know that many people across the country have taken up that opportunity. I know that more businesses and organisations have been improving the amount of fully paid maternity leave on offer, going beyond the statutory levels. That was the case with my previous employer, and indeed in the police service. However, it is very important that, as we consider the Bill, we think about how we can move forward, particularly in relation to covid. Given covid’s impact on businesses, with business margins tight, there is a concern that one of the first things to go will be provision that is above statutory levels. I am very concerned about that. Having had 10 years of progress, we cannot afford to have a lost decade when things go backwards as a result of covid. I therefore urge the Government to carry out an impact assessment on this issue. I hope the Paymaster General will address that point later.

To conclude, the aims of this legislation are very welcome but there is much more to be done. I hope that today’s debate will be the beginning of a conversation on how we modernise parental leave laws, how we encourage business to engage with that, how we recognise family life in 21st-century UK, and how we ensure that the legacy of covid is one of more flexible leave entitlements, rather than a reversion to statutory limits. Ultimately, however, the sadness of today is the Government’s failure to address the issue sooner. Perhaps they could have done that by carrying out an equalities impact assessment sooner. Sadly, that means we are talking today about one woman and the specifics of her case, and that should never have happened.