In the run-up to International Women’s Day, this is an opportune moment to welcome the Bill and the long overdue advancement of basic rights that it brings for women in Parliament. No Minister should be forced out of their post due to pregnancy, and participation in politics and public life should be accessible to all. However, gaping holes remain. The Bill only covers maternity leave for birth mothers and does not include paternity, shared parental or adoption leave, or considerations for parents of premature babies.
Centuries of struggle by women and trade unions and international best practice show that gender equality is best achieved when rights to parental leave are extended to all parents, so although this development is welcome it does not go far enough. The Bill fails to cover Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly, so will the Minister commit to strengthening the Bill and making it more inclusive at the earliest possible opportunity? If we cannot get it right in the corridors of power, how can we expect the policies we decide in Parliament to effectively tackle gender discrimination throughout society?
After a decade of austerity cuts by this Government that fell heavily on the shoulders of working women, and particularly on black working women—cuts that the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty called so sexist that they may as well have been compiled by a group of misogynists in a room—is it at all surprising that the pandemic has disproportionately left women at greater risk of leaving or losing their jobs, reducing their income and taking on extra caring burdens?
Earlier this month, a report from the Women and Equalities Committee, which I sit on, warned that this Government’s plans for economic recovery risk turning back the clock unless the equality impact of every policy is fully assessed. Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm the Government’s commitment to assessing the equality impact of their covid recovery plans? Women are more likely to be employed in sectors shut down during the pandemic, are more vulnerable to job loss or being placed on furlough, and are disproportionately employed on precarious contracts. The burden of juggling childcare and home schooling duty, as well as caring responsibilities for elderly or sick family members, has all fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women.
Research by the TUC revealed that a quarter of working mums are using their annual leave to manage their childcare during covid, with nearly one in five being forced to reduce their working hours or to take unpaid leave from work. In response, the TUC has called for temporary access to the furlough scheme for parents and those with caring responsibilities, and I want to take this opportunity to add my voice to that call.
In conclusion, the provisions of the Bill barely scratch the surface when it comes to promoting gender equality in Parliament and ensuring that politics is both accessible and inclusive. I urge the Government to take this opportunity to commit to strengthening the Bill and to acknowledge the need for much more to be done to protect basic rights for women inside and outside Parliament.