My Lords, the Bill before the House today will for the first time enable Ministers to take paid maternity leave from their job for an extended period. Women who aspire to, and hold, high office will no longer be disadvantaged against other women in this respect. I am sure that representatives of all three parties that have been in government in the last 20 years will agree that this is long overdue.
It is well known that the occasion of the Bill—and the cross-party agreement to accelerate it, for which the Government are grateful—is the pregnancy of my right honourable friend the Attorney-General. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending best wishes to her and her family.
This should not be a reproach to anyone, least of all to my right honourable friend. Sometimes it is an individual case, and the perception of injustice arising, that propels social advance, and let it be so here. The Bill sends out a vital message to encourage more women from every walk of life to enter politics, and to seek promotion in government without the fear of having later to choose between career and family.
I repeat how grateful I am to Her Majesty’s Opposition for their constructive engagement in the preparation of the Bill. Jointly, we have affirmed—and do here affirm again—that this will be the beginning, not the end, of a journey of reform. To date, within government structures, insufficient attention has been paid to the needs of pregnant Ministers, and there has been only limited progress to date. Yes, the Ministerial Code was changed in 2019 to confirm the ability of junior Ministers to take maternity leave, but this workaround—which several Members of the other place have used—relies on another Minister taking on additional responsibilities. We need to go further, and I will return to this issue later, as I know it is of importance to the House.
Clearly, this approach is simply unworkable for Secretaries of State or other holders of individual offices, such as the law officers or the Lord Chancellor, owing to their constitutional role and the volume and complexity of their workload, which gives rise to a pressing need for posts to be filled. The current law does not allow the Government to take on and pay another Cabinet Minister, or equivalent, as maternity cover, as happens in workplaces up and down the country. No fewer than three Acts of Parliament govern the issue of ministerial appointments and pay, and the restrictions on them. It is worth underlining the constitutional importance of these Acts, as they manage part of the delicate balance between the legislature and the Executive, ensuring that the payroll vote is kept in proportion to the overall size of the Commons. This is a serious consideration, and a balance that should not be adjusted lightly. However, we propose modest changes to prevent putting some women off holding high office for lack of adequate maternity provision.
Until now, for someone to be appointed to cover a Minister at this level, or one of the opposition officeholders covered by the Bill, and for that individual to be paid, the pregnant Minister would normally have to resign. The Bill ends this anachronistic and wholly unacceptable situation by providing six months’ paid maternity leave for all eligible Ministers and opposition officeholders.
Turning to the content of the Bill, Clause 1 allows the Prime Minister to designate a Minister who wishes to take maternity leave as a “Minister on leave” who remains part of the Government—able to be briefed on matters and to keep in touch with work, but not responsible for exercising the functions of the office from which they are on leave. It makes clear the conditions applicable to designation as a Minister on leave. It also sets out how the designation comes to an end, either automatically, six months after the Minister has been so designated, or earlier, should the Minister cease to hold that office—for example, due to appointment to a new ministerial role, resignation or dismissal.
Clause 2 sets out the methodology for calculating the amount of the allowance for the period of maternity leave, and how it is to be paid. It sets the allowance at six times the monthly salary of the Minister on leave’s previous ministerial office. The effect is that a Minister on leave continues to receive the same monthly amount in maternity allowance as they would have received had they still occupied their previous ministerial role. It will come from the same source, usually the relevant department in line with money provided for by Parliament. Finally, Clause 2 also sets out the arrangements that apply when the designation as a Minister on leave ends before the automatic expiry after six months, providing for a lump sum payment of the remainder of the allowance. That applies in all situations where the designation terminates earlier than the end of the six months, unless the Minister is appointed to another ministerial role, or has died.
In order to prevent double payment of a ministerial salary, Clause 3 provides that a Minister on leave cannot receive the maternity allowance provided for in this Bill at the same time as any salary set out under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975. It also makes clear that, where they are a Member of this House, a Minister on leave cannot receive the so-called Lords officeholder allowance under Section 5(1) of the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991. In addition, Clause 3 clarifies that, for the duration of the designation, a Minister on leave does not count towards the limit under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 on the number of Ministers who can come from the House of Commons at any one time. However, once the designation ends, the Minister once again counts for those purposes.
Clauses 4 to 6 make provision for certain opposition officeholders, namely those listed in the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, to take up to six months’ paid maternity leave. The arrangements contained are similar to those relating to Ministers in terms of duration, eligibility criteria, amount of allowance and source of the allowance. However, in contrast to Ministers, an opposition officeholder who is to take maternity leave would stay in post. The Bill authorises a payment to a nominated individual who, at the discretion of the Leader of the Opposition in the relevant House, is to cover the officeholder’s role, on similar terms as those for Ministers.
This difference in approach reflects the fact that opposition officeholders are not appointed by the Prime Minister and do not have statutory functions in the same way as a Secretary of State. It is therefore possible for an individual to provide the necessary maternity leave cover while the original officeholder remains in post. Only one person can be appointed to cover an officeholder’s post at any point during the period of leave. However, should the Leader of the Opposition wish to change the appointment, he or she may do so.
As is the case with a Minister on leave, where the opposition officeholder is a Member of the House of Lords, she is not eligible to claim the so-called Lords officeholder allowance provided under the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991 while on maternity leave. However, the individual appointed as maternity cover, by virtue of these provisions, is entitled to claim that allowance for the duration of their appointment. This is because the allowance is paid to reflect work undertaken in the House.
The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 makes provision for both MPs’ and Ministers’ pension schemes. Both Ministers and opposition officeholders are entitled to pensions under the Ministers’ pension scheme. The original officeholder’s salary remains pensionable during their maternity leave. However, the Bill provides that the individual appointed to cover the post is entitled to the Ministers’ pension scheme for the period of their appointment, in relation to the allowance paid to them for this role. The Bill comes into force on Royal Assent, and thus will be of immediate benefit and effect.
I turn to some issues which the Bill has given rise to in the other place and outside. First, on future work to broaden this reform, I have already made clear that the Government recognise that the Bill does not go as far as most will desire. There will understandably be many who would have wanted to see a Bill to resolve wider issues of parental leave such as paternity, adoption and shared parental leave. The Bill also does not address absences for sickness and other reasons, or the question of unpaid roles, which I know is an issue of particular interest to Members of this House. These are complex issues that require careful further consideration, taking into account modern working practices and the wider constitutional context.
The House will be aware that the Government recently consulted on parental leave and pay for employees, and they are due to respond to that consultation in the near future. This work will provide us with a valuable perspective, and any future proposals for Ministers will be developed with those conclusions in mind. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, the Government have undertaken to look into broader proposals, both in the round and in detail. The Government also welcome IPSA’s recent announcement that it will be consulting on some of these issues. We look forward to working with them, and with Members across both Houses, on this work. The Government are committed to building more widely on the progress this Bill represents and will present an update to Parliament by the Summer Recess.
Several Members of the other place raised concerns about the use of the word “person” in this Bill in referring to pregnant women. I know that a number of noble Lords share that concern, and I have, of course, noted the amendment from my noble friend Lady Noakes, who I look forward to hearing shortly. I understand the strength of this feeling, but I will come back to this point in my closing speech in more detail so as to respond more completely to the points raised by all noble Lords on this issue in the course of the debate.
Briefly, I should point out that the language used in the Bill is in line with current drafting convention and guidance; it is legally accurate and achieves the aim of ensuring that female Ministers can take paid maternity leave. Of this there is no doubt. The Bill’s drafting also provides flexibility in the event that the future work programme that I have just spoken of gives rise to the need to revisit its provisions. Nevertheless, the Government have already responded to the concerns from both Houses that this drafting could be misinterpreted, and have updated the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, which now detail how the Bill is intended to support women, and explains the drafting practice. It will continue to be the policy of this Government to refer to “pregnant women” in government publications. As I said, I will reply to the amendment in full in my closing speech, when I have listened to all Members of this House, but I wanted to make this point clear at the outset, and to make clear that the Government are listening to the strength of feeling in this House on this matter.
For the reasons outlined above, I commend this reforming Bill to the House.