Clause 1 - Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office

Part of Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 1st March 2021.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 5:21 pm, 1st March 2021

Having covered many of the key arguments on this Bill in previous Commons stages, I will keep my comments brief. Labour has agreed to support the Bill for the specific purpose of ensuring that the Attorney General can take maternity leave as a matter of urgency. It is shocking that we are currently in a position where women Ministers face resignation or demotion when choosing to have children.

While Labour supports the Bill as a small step forward for pregnant Ministers, there is no doubt that far too many gaps remain in it to make it fit for the 21st century. This is an important opportunity to reflect on the desperately unequal reality faced by so many women across our country today. As Centenary Action Group highlighted,

“The legislation must not be seen in a vacuum but instead as the opportunity for a…call to action to protect parents in the workplace during these difficult times.”

I am shocked that the Government have failed to respond to the discrimination faced by pregnant women trying to access the Chancellor’s self-employment support scheme during the pandemic. Indeed, the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed highlights that nearly 70,000 women were unlawfully put on statutory sick pay, thereby negatively affecting their maternity pay and other entitlements. I hope the Minister will address these broader concerns in her closing remarks.

Members across the House have expressed the widespread disappointment that the Bill lacks the ambition that it should have or any attempt to broaden it out in terms of other forms of parental leave. I welcome what the Minister has said about aspirations for Government to include paternity and shared parental leave in future legislation. I urge her to also consider the need for adoption leave and leave for parents of premature and sick babies. Indeed, the debate over the wording in this legislation and the consequence of the Lords amendments reflects the extremely limited nature of the Bill. We would not be having this discussion if the Government had made adequate provision for all parental leave.

Let us be clear: every single person, no matter their gender, deserves to have parental leave when they become a parent, but the Government’s last-minute rushing through of this Bill has stifled any wider progress on this issue. I point out that the speed at which the Government are acting to ensure that the Attorney General can rightly take maternity leave is in stark contrast to their failure to support pregnant women facing discrimination and hardship throughout the pandemic.

The Bill solves the singular issue of maternity leave for the Attorney General, an aim that Labour supports, but Labour does not condone the Government’s failure to address the wider issues of parental leave, or their failure throughout the pandemic to protect basic workers’ rights. Perhaps the Minister could provide an update on the Government’s long-awaited 2019 Queen’s Speech commitment to strengthen legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents.

Let me be clear: every worker, no matter whether they are a Minister, an MP, a factory worker or a shop worker—everyone—deserves the right to parental leave. If we have learned anything from the coronavirus crisis, it is that acting at the point of emergency is not good governance. With more lead-in time, detailed law making could have been done to ensure inclusive parental leave.

Labour will continue to fight for these employment rights. After all, Labour has a proud history of fighting for equality, from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equality Act 2010 and the introduction of the national minimum wage. All those progressive pieces of equalities legislation were delivered by Labour. I look forward to the Government’s promised legislation to make further progress in this long and ongoing fight for equality and to fill in the gaps that exist in this legislation.