Clause 1 - Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office

Part of Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 1st March 2021.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 5:30 pm, 1st March 2021

I am mindful that the Bill is in front of us today because the Attorney General is about to have a baby, and I wish her and her family all the best. Maternity leave is a right—it should not be a discretionary benefit—and that should no different for Ministers or MPs. More broadly, though, we are not in the best place on maternity either in this House or, more importantly, outside it. Many of us have spoken at length about the issues that the Bill does not tackle but ought to. None of that has anything particularly to do with the Attorney General’s leave, so I would not suggest putting any barrier in the way of that, but it is my firm intention to secure from the Minister some clear commitments as to what she will do next.

It is absolutely right, and not before time, that Ministers are able to go on maternity leave. Despite the protestations from those on the Government Benches when we discussed this before, I still think it is unacceptable that the Prime Minister of the day is the ultimate arbiter of whether this can actually happen. I have said it before and I say it again: it should never be necessary for women to seek the potentially grudging consent of a boss to take maternity leave. If it is beyond our wit in 2021 to find a more satisfactory way of dealing with things like that, it is a poor show.

That is because what we do here and what we do with this makes a difference to how other people deal with their maternity leave, be they MPs, where the status quo is not much use, either to MPs or to their constituents; our staff, and perhaps the Minister can say something about what changes could be made to Short money to support proper maternity provisions for staff members; or all the people outside the political world, who are just trying to get by and will rightly wonder why we can manage to press ahead with such haste in this situation—again, I am pleased to get this sorted for the Attorney General; it is right that we do that—but have not been able to make such progress, and at such speed that would make all the difference, for ordinary families.

The statistics from Pregnant Then Screwed say it all. Its survey of 20,000 women in July last year found, among other things, that 61% of women believe that their maternity leave was a factor in a redundancy decision, and self-employed women who have taken maternity leave in the last three years saw their Government support cut by a third, or even by two thirds, if they have taken two maternity leaves, compared with dads, who are not impacted at all financially by maternity leave.

Let me touch on the amendments to language that have emerged from the Lords. The Minister gave a pretty concerted defence of gender-neutral language previously, so I am interested to see the change of tack here, given that it is perfectly normal to draft in gender-neutral terms. I am not convinced that this change is either progress or progressive. That is relevant, first, because the Bill is far too narrow in scope and deals with only this one issue and, secondly, because our representation here is just not reflective of who we are more broadly; we are far less diverse as a political group than the people we represent, and the lack of proper provisions for maternity leave illustrate that well. The Bill, as far as it goes, only makes provision for maternity leave for birth mothers. It does not make provision for all the different types of leave we have talked about—parental leave, paternity leave, adoption leave, shared leave and so on. So I ask the Minister to reflect further on the fact that everyone should have access to decent parental leave, not just some new parents.

On that note, I would be grateful if the Minister could say exactly when she intends to come back to the House with concrete proposals to deal with all these other pressing issues, so that we can see improvements to maternity, paternity and parental leave provisions far more broadly. That is particularly important as we move beyond the lockdown phase of the pandemic and caring and work responsibilities need to work together, rather than against one another. For example, the right to request flexible working from the start of employment would help so many people, with women bearing the disproportionate burden of caring responsibilities being particularly in need of that kind of progress. That is often an issue post maternity leave.

While we are dealing with this one narrow Bill, we need to appreciate that the status quo is far from good enough. The UK has the second lowest payment rates for maternity leave of OECD countries, with less than a third of gross average earnings replaced by maternity payments. Despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave lasts for only 12 weeks and a maternity allowance of just £151.20, which is worth about half the national minimum wage for a full-time worker, is obviously completely unacceptable. The fact that that is increasing by a grand total of 77p a week in April is shockingly inadequate. The Minister has to recognise that. She also has to recognise that we really need legislation to expand eligibility for statutory maternity leave and pay for workers who still do not qualify, including people on insecure contracts such as agency workers or zero-hours contract workers.

Much needs to be done. We need action on those insecure workers, maternity leave, parental leave and paternity pay, and we need policies that take account of the different shapes of families and different kinds of support that will be necessary. All these matters have to be addressed with some urgency. I realise that they are not the specific issues in front of us today, but it all fits together into a lack of care and direction from the UK Government.

Although the SNP supports the Bill, there is no getting away from the fact that the UK ranks very poorly in terms of maternity provision, and the very particular narrow nature of the Bill does nothing to remedy that. In fact, it just demonstrates how archaic Westminster can be. It is worth reflecting that an independent Scotland could do so much better on maternity and parental leave—not just for Ministers, but for everyone.