My Lords, I beg to move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. This regrets that the drafting of the Bill does not respect the fact that only women can be pregnant. Before speaking to my amendment, I would like to assure my noble friend the Minister that, while I deplore the language of the Bill, I fully support its proximate aim, which is to allow my right honourable friend the Attorney-General to take paid maternity leave. I join my noble friend Lord True in wishing the Attorney-General well and that her baby is safely delivered.
I had expected to be given an advisory speaking time of more than six minutes in view of my regret Motion, but this is not a time-limited debate, so I shall be taking a little extra time anyway. I shall, of course, comply with the Companion. My noble friend Lady Scott need not bother to do that Whip thing of head swivelling and jumping up and down when I do go over six minutes.
My Motion is about the drafting of this Bill, but it is set within a broader context of the erasure of women in society. Those of us who care about the position of women have been increasingly concerned about the dilution of the 2010 Equality Act with its protected characteristic of sex, not gender, which should protect women. Some organisations, deliberately or carelessly, conflate sex and gender. The Office for National Statistics, for example, has dug itself into this hole for the upcoming census, with the likely result that inaccurate statistical data about women will come from that.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which should have been vigilant in guarding all the protected characteristics of the 2010 Act, has itself caused problems, and its guidance has led directly to a loss of single-sex spaces. The NHS, which in the past had to be forced to abandon mixed-sex wards, now routinely admits to women’s wards on the basis of self-identification, regardless of the needs or wishes of women. Prisons operate like this, too. And do not get me started on so-called gender-neutral toilets.
There is an increasing use of language that eliminates women, such as the ludicrous use by the World Health Organization of “people who menstruate”. Only two weeks ago, the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust declared that “breastfeeding” was to be replaced with “chestfeeding”, and “mother” with “birthing parent.” That might go down well in woke Brighton, but it will appal men and women in mainstream Britain.
People who challenge this in public are often labelled transphobic, as JK Rowling discovered when she poked fun at the WHO and its use of “people who menstruate” and was then publicly vilified. There is no malice in wishing to maintain the biological facts of womanhood and the lived experience of women, which includes menstruation, childbirth and menopause. That view happily coexists with respect and concern for transgender people. I am proud of my own record on LGBT issues, both in your Lordships' House and in the organisations with which I have been involved, but I am not prepared to be erased as a woman.
Let me turn now to the drafting of this Bill. Clause 1(3) uses the language of “the person is pregnant” and
“the person has given birth to a child”.
It is a biological fact that only women can be pregnant and give birth. That is why laws that relate to maternity issues have in the past routinely been drafted using the words “woman”, “she” and “her”. It is not good enough to just say that we have gender-neutral drafting now. When Jack Straw, as Lord Chancellor, announced in 2007 that the Government would use gender-neutral drafting, the context was the long-standing interpretation rule that words referring to the masculine gender include the feminine. This was thought to be demeaning to women, although I personally never felt demeaned by it. The Statement made it clear that this was not intended to outlaw the use of particular genders where only one is involved. It was not intended to prevent women from being mothers. It is ironic that Jack Straw’s generous gesture towards equality has now been turned against women.
Just three years after the 2007 Statement, the Equality Act 2010 was passed. That clearly uses female terminology to define the protected characteristics of sex and pregnancy. On
“also recognises that there must be some flexibility and that there will be some Acts where only gender-specific drafting can be usefully applied. In a case where a person has to be of a particular gender—male or female—gender-neutral drafting does not require drafters to avoid referring to the gender. I think your Lordships would agree that that would be the case for legislation about maternity.”—[
I say “hear, hear” to that.
As far as I can tell, there has not been a ministerial Statement since 2013 that reversed the clear understanding of what gender-neutral drafting was about. The Minister may well cite some more recent primary and secondary legislation that has departed from that clear understanding, but, as far as I am concerned, that has slipped through below the radar. We have to put a stop to the practice. If this Bill passes unamended, there will be yet another precedent on the statute book for the elimination of women.
When this Bill was considered in the other place, the Minister asserted:
“It is not the case that we could legally and correctly use the word “woman” in this piece of legislation”.—[Official Report, 11/2/21; col. 594.]
I respectfully say to the Minister that this is garbage. There is nothing illegal or incorrect about using the word “women’ in relation to pregnancy. The only thing that appears to prevent the use of the word “woman” is a reinterpretation, by stealth, of the gender-neutral drafting guidance. In my view, it would be entirely legal and certainly correct to use the word “woman” in this Bill. Parliamentary counsel should be reminded that at the end of the day it is Parliament, and not civil servants, that decides how our laws are written.
I have spoken before about your Lordships' House being seen from the outside as a metropolitan bubble. This Bill speaks the language of a metropolitan elite who is unconcerned about its impact on the majority of our society, who are women, or about the view of the overwhelming majority of our citizens that women exist.
This is not a party-political issue, but it grieves me that a Conservative Government, who are bravely standing against all sorts of nonsense that has infested our public life, are abandoning women.
I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for introducing this welcome Bill, and I take the opportunity to welcome my noble friend Baroness Hayman of Ullock to her first outing winding for the Opposition on a Bill. I also look forward to hearing from the first noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.
My honourable friend Rachel Reeves MP paid tribute to the noble Baroness last week, recalling that, back in 1976, she was first woman MP to have a baby while serving in Parliament. However, just 10 days after she gave birth, she had to turn up in the House to vote, as pairing had been suspended. Had the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, realised, 45 years ago, how long we would have to wait for this first step, I do wonder whether she might have given up the will to fight, although knowing her, I think not. Where the noble Baroness led, others followed, and today we take another, albeit tiny, step forward.
For many of us, it is hard to believe it has taken so long to come even this far. When I published my first article on maternity leave—I think in spring 1971—in the industrial relations review and report, virtually no one apart from some very few in the public sector was able to get paid time off. Thas was 50 years ago. Thirty years ago today, my godson was born. Happy birthday, Freddy. Soon after, he became “famous for a day”, when we launched a campaign for maternity leave, contrasting the situation in the UK with that in the EU, showing how two pregnant MEPs—Carole Tongue from the UK and Kirsten Jensen from Denmark—had very different maternity rights. Young Freddy, I have to say, was just a PR prop, cradled by the then Shadow Employment Minister, a certain Tony Blair, but he given star billing in the Times.
So 50 years on from that first article, 30 years from when I launched that particular Labour campaign, I am, needless to say, delighted to support this Bill, even though it is a small, weak thing and fails to cover paternity leave, adoption or, more importantly, every working woman. But it does mean that the Attorney-General will be the first Cabinet Minister in UK history to take maternity leave with proper pay and cover. Where the Attorney-General leads, others will, and must, follow.
As Rachel Reeves also noted in the Commons, the first four female Labour Cabinet Ministers—Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Florence Horsbrugh and Barbara Castle—were childless. Indeed, that was often the choice for women: have a career or have a child, but not both. Of course, many did succeed and heroically combined both. In my generation, apart from the noble Baroness, I think particularly of the right honourable Harriet Harman and the late Barbara Mills QC, who set up a nursery in her basement to solve her childcare problem. Under the last Labour Government, first Yvette Cooper, some 20 years ago, then Ruth Kelly and Meg Hillier had babies while serving as Ministers, although with no formal provision for maternity leave and with other Ministers having to cover for them; I assume that there was some pairing. Luckily, Yvette Cooper had chosen to live with the person now officially recognised as the “Celebrity Best Home Cook”—Ed Balls.
Here in this House, we have mostly arrived past childbearing age, although I am delighted that this is no longer the case. However, the amendment I want to see would add grandmother leave to the Bill. I am delighted that Lords Ministers will be covered—as is my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, although she has warned me off thinking I might step into her shoes for six months as the lovely Nigel has firmly put his foot down on that.
This Bill makes it clear that there need be no choice between motherhood and a career—at least in Parliament. However, elsewhere, most working women face a very different situation. While statutory maternity pay can be for 39 weeks, it is only for the first six weeks, not six months, that it is paid at 90% of average weekly earnings. For the remaining 33 weeks, it is just £151.20 or less. This leaves household incomes well down for a lengthy period, and that is before parents must start saving to meet the cost of childcare for when the mother returns to work.
It is true that many employers pay more than the statutory minimum, but it is in no way universal. Fewer than one in 10 private sector bodies sampled offered the same as in the Bill. Labour will hold the Government to their word to work on a cross-party basis to introduce comprehensive legislation in the coming months to extend this Bill’s coverage to all of Parliament, but we also want to press for the rights of women councillors and mayors—indeed, all working women—so that maternity rights become the norm, not the exception. We also want paternity leave for men to be similarly extended.
As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, there is one unusual choice of words in this Bill: the reference to a “person”, rather than a “woman”, being pregnant. The Minister has provided assurances that this is a drafting issue and does not signal any change of policy, but there is no doubt that it seems at odds with other legislation on maternity rights and protection, despite Friday’s letter from the noble Lord, Lord True. More surprising, as we heard from the noble Baroness—she actually called it garbage—was the statement made by his colleague in the Commons:
“It is not the case that we could legally and correctly use the word ‘woman’ in this piece of legislation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 594.]
Why not, given that it is in the notes and the Minister assured us that
“it will continue to be the policy of the Government to refer to ‘pregnant women’ in broader Government publications”?
We look forward to what the Minister just promised us: his explaining a little more when he winds up about why this language was used and whether there is any chance of it conflicting with other relevant legislation.
Clearly, the wording in no way detracts from the intention of the Bill; maternity leave will indeed be available to the AG from later this week. We would in no way want to signify any lack of support for its provision. We wish the Attorney-General well for the future enlargement of her family and we look forward to working with the Government to ensure that maternity provision is extended to all MPs and working women so that it really does become the norm, not the exception. We hope that the Braverman Bill is, as the Minister just said, the beginning, not the end, of the reform and we look forward to the rest of the debate on this important Bill.
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill and support its proposals.
It implements proposals made six years ago by the Women in Parliament APPG. As the Minister told us, the Ministerial Code was amended two years ago to accommodate ministerial maternity leave, so the Bill should have been introduced earlier—not rushed through now. I accept its use of gender-neutral language, as recommended in the 2007 legislative guidance, but I note the sensitivity of language at stake here. This clearly needs further discussion but I suspect that it would not be helped by dividing the House at the end of this debate.
The battle to improve maternity conditions for working mothers carries strong personal echoes for me. My wife was a lecturer at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology when we were expecting our first child. At that time, there were no older married women on the academic staff and no arrangements for leave. Helen drove home every lunchtime throughout a university term to breastfeed our daughter. Thankfully, conditions for women giving birth while in work have improved immensely since then, particularly in the Civil Service. I welcome this further step in liberal improvements in the status of women.
However, this welcome comes with a number of critical reservations. As the Minister admitted, the Government are rushing this through to deal with the immediate situation that faces a particular Cabinet Minister. It is almost an ad personam Bill. It does not address parental leave for ministerial fathers. It does not cover adoption. It does not address the issue of sick leave for Ministers, even though this arose for a Cabinet Minister involved in one of the most delicate aspects of the Brexit negotiations—the Northern Ireland issue—in 2018. I regret the absence of these elements from the Bill. I thank the Minister for his pledge to set out the Government’s proposals for covering these other dimensions soon.
The Bill provides for maternity leave to enable a Minister to return to their responsibilities six months later. Such continuity offers an excellent principle for good government; it takes most Ministers a year or more to master the full complexities of their portfolio. Yet we now have a Cabinet almost none of whose members has held office for much more than a year. The current Attorney-General is the third to hold that office since 2015. She sits alongside the fourth Foreign Secretary, the fourth Chancellor and the fourth Secretary of State for Education, and the fifth Business Secretary, since 2015—and now there are rumours of a coming reshuffle. Will the Minister tell us whether his Government intend to allow Ministers to stay in their posts long enough to expect to return from six months’ leave to the same office? Ministerial churn at a rate of nine to 18 months per office is the opposite of good governance.
But my most fundamental criticism is that this is the only constitutionally relevant Bill that we have so far seen in this Parliament, apart from those on Brexit. The Prime Minister promised in the 2019 manifesto that
“After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution”.
That commitment was widely welcomed across the political spectrum; think tanks even held meetings to discuss what this broad agenda should include. Instead, in the past year the Government have sacked senior civil servants, broken the Ministerial Code, disregarded the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, attacked the Electoral Commission, strengthened the Executive at the expense of Parliament, and bypassed democratic local authorities in handling the pandemic. The constitution commission which the Government promised to set up in less than 12 months from the election has been shelved. The Minister has defended this slide from the manifesto commitment without hesitation. He has repeatedly told us that Conservative victory in last December’s election represented the “will of the people”, on 43.5% of the electorate. He has defended behaviour from this Government that John Major—whom he served—would never have contemplated as Prime Minister.
We have watched the US Republican Party slide away from constitutional democracy towards pluto-populism—rich men claiming to represent the will of the people, while breaking the spirit and the letter of constitutional democracy. We see the beginnings of a similar slide here. That is why we need to hold the Government to the manifesto commitment they want to forget.
While I welcome this Bill, I encourage colleagues across the House to hold the Government to account on their neglect of larger constitutional issues, not least because the relationship between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been shaken by Brexit, and will not be resolved without further constitutional changes.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who made some interesting points. I thank the Minister for setting out the position in relation to this Bill. I support this short, focused Bill, and believe that nothing should be done to delay or thwart it, although I have sympathy with the points raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes on the language in it. I wish my right honourable friend Suella Braverman well with her maternity, and I hope with her maternity leave—as others have noted, this measure is long overdue. Like others, I note the massive contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who is speaking later in this debate. She was indeed a trailblazer.
With that said, there are wider interests which need to be considered, and I am grateful to my noble friend for admitting that these will be brought forward; the sooner, the better. Setting best practice for parental leave across the board for other employers and employments is something which has been neglected by successive Governments. We need to deal with paternity leave, to consider the position of adopted and surrogate children, and indeed to look at shared parental leave, as the Minister acknowledged. I am grateful that this is going to be part of the Government’s agenda. Something on the timeline for this would be welcome, as we do not want to lose the momentum as we are taking this first welcome step in relation to maternity leave. Good employers should be following practices set out by the Government and by Parliament, so we need to step up to the plate, as has been noted for sick leave, grandparental leave, carers, victims of domestic abuse, and so on. All these can be considered, I hope.
With the indulgence of the House, notwithstanding the importance of those issues, I will touch on another matter which is long overdue, and particularly relates to people in your Lordships’ House. That is the subject of unpaid Ministers. I had the great pleasure of being a paid Minister, and I hope that gives me some latitude to speak on this. It is said without in any way undermining our excellent Ministers, both paid and unpaid, but in this day and age it must not be right that we expect people to serve and not be paid. I certainly know of one potential Minister who was asked to serve but felt unable to do so because she was not going to be paid. That was not under this Prime Minister, I add, but it seems wrong in principle. Eight of our 25 Ministers in your Lordships’ House are unpaid, which is nearly a third. We should not expect people to serve but not get the rate of pay attached to the job. We would not expect that in industry or elsewhere in the public service; it is not right in a modern democracy. It should not be a condition of the job that you are unpaid; I hope my noble friend will undertake that this will be looked at by the Government.
I recognise that there is a legislative impediment to increasing the number of paid Ministers, and that this has impeded successive Governments of all colours; it is not particular to this Government by any means. But it would be a relatively simple matter, and I imagine non-controversial, to amend or repeal the measure. I cannot believe that it is right in the 21st century that we are not paying Ministers for doing the job. It seems like something which belongs to another age, such as quill pens or horse-drawn hansom cabs, perhaps more appropriate to the age of Trollope—Anthony, not Joanna—and it is high time that we moved on.
My Lords, while I welcome this Bill, I think it a shame that it has taken so long to acknowledge that maternity leave should be granted to Ministers, and that it is being rushed through both Houses, meaning there is not enough time to scrutinise the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, but even though it is very narrow there are some flaws. For example, there has been no equality impact assessment—why? Is it because it is being rushed though?
As the Government have recognised that women holding ministerial office should have paid maternity leave, this should be an opportunity to look at the wider case of improving paid maternity leave for all pregnant working women. I hope that there will be another maternity Bill before us soon so that we can look at improving the lot of all pregnant working women. The Bill should be an impetus to address low statutory maternity pay, which is around £151 per week, or lower in some cases—less than half of the national minimum wage, so the pregnant woman’s income is reduced at a time when she is preparing for the birth of her child. The Government have done the right thing by the Attorney-General and women Cabinet Ministers. I hope they will put things right for the rest of the pregnant women in the country.
It is surprising to me, and to many others, that the word “woman” is not used in this Bill but instead the word “person” is used, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, explained so well. I certainly agree with her. Considering that only women can get pregnant and give birth, I cannot see any reason why “woman” cannot be used. I believe in using gender-neutral language where appropriate, but I do not believe it is appropriate in this Bill. In his letter to Peers, the Minister explained that “person”
“reflects modern drafting convention and guidance, in place since 2007, and common across much of our legislation”.
I note that the Minister says “much”, which I assume means “not all”.
Jack Straw, as Leader of the House of Commons, in 2007 made a Written Statement to the House of Commons dealing with using gender-neutral language in legislation. It was not debated, but this has become the guidance, and in many respects was good, as no longer in legislation would we see the male gender used when it should have referred to men and women.
But there are examples, such as in the Bill, when the word “woman” should be used rather than “person”. I give the example of the Equality Act 2010, which uses “woman”, not “person”, throughout and in all sections related to pregnancy, maternity and lactation. I refer again to the Minister’s letter:
“We recognise that a drafting convention that was originally designed to avoid denigrating women should not result in the erasure of women from our public discourse.”
As a result, the Explanatory Notes have been changed, using “Minister” instead of “person” in several places. I just wonder about that. The Minister recognised that it was not appropriate to use “person” and changed it to “Minister”, but why could it not have been changed to “woman”?
“how offensive the word ‘person’ or ‘persons’ can be in this context”.
Commenting further, she said:
“I hope that we can make some changes, if not to the legislation then to the explanatory notes, that will address some of” these
However, she said that the Government could put the word “Minister” in the Explanatory Notes and stated that:
“Although that is still gender-neutral language, it is a much less jarring term than ‘person’.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; cols. 559-94.]
When legislation is intended only for women and not for men, I hope that the Minister will accept that “woman” should always be used in place of “person”.
It is not too late for the Government to come forward and amend the Bill to right a wrong. I hope that the Minister will take note of the criticism and of how offensive it is to women, bearing in mind that this is the second Bill before us in recent months in which the word “woman” has been written out of the legislation, as in the Domestic Abuse Bill. Having said that, I support every other aspect of the Bill and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I, too, welcome the Bill, which is long overdue in seeking to right a wrong and an anomaly that has been ongoing for some time. However, as has been acknowledged, it is extremely narrowly focused. It ignores the lack of provisions for all MPs and throws up wider implications concerning the lack of protection for others. It is clear that it does not go far enough. The timing and political urgency have dictated that the Bill is rushed through, but there is disappointment that this opportunity was not used to put right other wrongs and anomalies, and it has highlighted the lack of protection for thousands of others.
The lack of an equalities impact assessment, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, is very disappointing, given the subject of the Bill. This would have allowed further consideration and a wider assessment that could have included all MPs, parliamentary staff and, as has been mentioned, local councillors in the round. I look forward to that and the wider issues that have been thrown up today being addressed when the new legislation, which we have heard about, is introduced. It could also seek to address the need for greater and better representation in public life than we have at present.
The Minister in the other place admitted that the beneficiaries of the Bill are indeed very narrowly defined. She went on to say that, although adoption leave and shared parental leave were important provisions, they had not been included in the Bill, as they
“require further consideration in the wider constitutional context.”—[
That is disappointing. However, she said that the Government would swiftly bring back proposals to address outstanding parental leave issues. I was going to ask the Minister what “swiftly” meant, but he said in his introduction that such proposals would be brought back by the Summer Recess, and I welcome that.
It is right that the Bill will change the law to allow the Attorney-General to take maternity leave—I wish her well in the birth of her child—but I hope it will ensure that the Government show commitment to strengthening the employment rights of all pregnant women and new parents across the UK. The Government also need urgently to take a serious look at the unacceptably low basic rate of both statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance, which, as has been mentioned, are a paltry £151.20 a week—less than the national minimum wage for a 35-hour week—especially while thousands of pregnant women are losing their jobs during this pandemic.
The impressive speed with which the Government are acting to ensure that the Minister is able to take paid maternity leave is in contrast with the failure to act on previous commitments to enhance legal protections for pregnant women and new parents in the workplace, especially in the current climate. It is quite shameful that the United Kingdom ranks 22nd out of 24 European countries, lagging way behind many other countries.
The Government have yet to take action on their commitment back in January 2017 to strengthen legal protections against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents. When are these likely to be brought forward? It also remains an anomaly that the Bill requires a pregnant Minister to seek the Prime Minister’s permission or discretion in order to take maternity leave. It does not create a right to maternity leave. I would like some assurance that there will be concerted action to address questions around adoption, surrogacy and other issues that may well arise in the future.
It is good and positive that the Government have found time for a Bill for one woman, but they should be able to find time to follow this up and bring forward a Bill to help many thousands of others. This is particularly important in the current pandemic, when pregnant women are not covered by the furlough scheme, despite guidance that pregnant front-line staff, particularly in the NHS, are vulnerable to Covid-19 beyond the 29th week of their pregnancy. It is reported that many thousands of pregnant women are unlawfully being sent home on sick pay or unpaid leave. Last October, the TUC, Maternity Action, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives called on the Chancellor to adapt the furlough scheme to protect working women who are more than 28 weeks pregnant. It has been reported that there has been no response, despite a reminder in January. Will this be taken back and responded to as a matter of urgency?
Concern has been expressed about the gender-neutral language used in the Bill. I have received correspondence about it, and I am sure that other noble Lords have as well. People are raising their concerns with us. All legislation is framed using gender-neutral language, as is this Bill. The Minister’s letter said that the guidelines had been amended accordingly to refer to the Minister in question and that “pregnant women” would continue to be referred to in government publications alongside gender-neutral language, as appropriate. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that that is not true, and others are also saying that that is not the case. There is some confusion over this, and I look forward to clarification when the Minister responds. Given that we expect gender-neutral language to be inclusive, I would be happy to be able to use “pregnant women”—we have used it throughout this debate—alongside other gender-neutral language as appropriate.
The Government have done the right thing for the Attorney-General and other Cabinet Ministers and opposition spokespeople. Now, they need to put right the completely wrong and unequal situation experienced by the rest of the women and new parents in this country.
My Lords, I declare an interest, although not a current one, as the prospects of my being offered ministerial office are as remote as the chances of my becoming pregnant again. However, 45 years ago, I was pregnant and in Parliament when such a thing was, frankly, considered inconceivable, to coin a phrase. My son, Ben, was born when Jim Callaghan’s Government were hanging by a thread, with no majority in the Commons, running three-line Whips on Lords’ amendments, and with no pairing, following an incident involving Michael Heseltine—now the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine—and the Mace, which older Members might recall. Given the attitudes and circumstances of 45 years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that no arrangements for maternity leave were in place, so I ended up bringing the baby into the House with me two days after leaving hospital, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to.
The day after the first vote in which I participated, which the Government won by a majority of one, the front page of the Daily Express read, “Held Together by a Nappy Pin”, although I preferred the Sun’s headline, “Little Ben strikes”. I thank my lucky stars that my experience predated social media, so my hate mail was confined to those who put pen to paper and to those newspaper columnists who decided to accuse me of neglecting my child, of exhibitionism or of that terrible thing that women do—wanting to have it all.
Like all noble Lords who have spoken, I wish the Attorney-General well and applaud her decision to embark on a substantial period of full maternity leave. I welcome the provisions in this Bill to ensure that she can do so. But over the decades since 1976, many distinguished serving women Ministers and MPs have, I am happy to say, given birth. It is no longer an affront, nor a novelty, and I suspect the current doorkeepers in the House of Commons are no longer instructed by the Sergeant at Arms, as they were in 1976, as to the degree of force to be used to stop a mother bringing a baby into the Chamber.
After all those years and all that experience, I find it dispiriting that we need emergency legislation to ensure that appropriate arrangements are made to provide maternity leave for Suella Braverman. Even more worrying and depressing was to hear the contributions of MPs to the debate on the Bill in another place, their descriptions of the continuing abuse received by pregnant MPs and the many serious unresolved issues regarding cover for their constituency responsibilities. There is clearly much work still to be done.
Today, we are faced with this emergency legislation, which universally in this House is considered unsatisfactory because, by its nature, it lacks the consideration, equalities assessment in advance, and scrutiny to which it should be subjected before its presentation and during its passage through Parliament.
The fact that women parliamentarians have babies has been apparent to my certain knowledge for 45 years. The Attorney-General’s pregnancy has hardly been a state secret. We should record our concern at the lack of foresight and planning by the Government that has led to us having to deal with this Bill at breakneck speed. That haste and lack of time for consideration has meant—as the Minister accepted in his introduction—that we are in the uncomfortable position of putting on to the statute book severely limited legislation which leaves many issues unanswered and does not deal with important questions relating to paternity, shared parental and adoption leave, or the issues faced by non-ministerial parliamentarians.
I fear it also creates the impression that we can find time to legislate to address the needs of our own but not the needs of all the other pregnant women and new parents for whom current provision is far from adequate and for whom Covid has created its own problems, particularly in relation to furloughing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ecce, said. Only if this Bill is followed by comprehensive action in these areas will the Government have any credibility. I hope the noble Lord the Minister will be able to provide reassurance on this point when he winds up.
Finally, a word about language and the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: I believe the drafters of this Bill have quite simply got it wrong in trying to Snopake the word “woman” from the legislative lexicon. The price of so-called gender neutrality in this Bill is an awkward and ugly distortion of the English language and an affront to common sense. Far from encouraging respect for language and the recognition of diversity, to which I am fully committed, it risks bemusing and alienating the public and damaging the very causes that passionate advocates of such language espouse. I look forward to debates in Committee on this issue but, even more importantly, I profoundly hope that this Bill can be the spur to do far better for pregnant women, new mothers and fathers, and their babies in the future.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. It is always so, but especially on this Bill. As we have heard, she has a special place in the history of mothers in Parliament and as a pioneer of what we are discussing today.
I welcome this Bill and will not detain your Lordships long. One may well argue that the measure is rather overdue, and it may come to many as a surprise that recent Governments have not acted on this issue before. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, it is always interesting that, when Parliament has to act on things which seem to be in our own interests, we can do it in a hurry. I remember well an issue with election leaflets, when it was discovered that the then Home Secretary—Jack Straw, I think—had a whole stack of posters in his garage that were printed incorrectly. We quickly put through a Bill to make sure that those were not redundant.
I am delighted that we are moving bit by bit to aligning Parliament with current workplace practices. As we have heard, some may consider that this Bill should have a wider remit, but as it is being brought forward to address a particular case, legislative time is difficult to find. This is probably a wasted opportunity, but we are where we are, so let us go ahead with it.
One employment issue that was raised consistently by a former constituent of mine was job-sharing for MPs. While I understand some of the reasons why that may seem desirable or attractive to some—and as much as I try to think how it might work, as it does in other workplaces—I was never able to resolve the particular problem of voting being shared. That said, I am pleased that the Bill has a narrow remit and I hope that, as a result, it should have a relatively speedy passage through Parliament.
I am also aware—I could not be unaware—of the concerns we have already heard about some of the gender-neutral language in the Bill. I do not want to get into this controversial and complicated issue, nor do I think I am qualified to do so. I listened to my noble friend Lady Noakes and share some of her views on the excesses of language that we have seen recently, not least from Brighton. However, I fear that my natural inclination to avoid controversy may have deserted me. In times past, I may well have shared more of those concerns. On reflection, I have found myself to be always somewhat behind the curve and that the world has moved on, leaving me behind. Now, somewhat counter-intuitively, I do not see a problem with the language being used—language which has, after all, as we have heard, been a convention for a number of years. It is more inclusive and was originally introduced to enhance the status of women. I am satisfied that there is absolutely no intention on the Government’s part to write out the incredible role of women.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for his helpful letter to us, which I found reassuring, and for his opening comments today. I shall listen carefully to his closing remarks. All I will add is this: I find it quite common now when filling in forms and asked to put down one’s gender that there is a box marked “Prefer not to say”. I understand that some do not wish to identify their gender. Perhaps this language will help them. As I have said, I have no expertise at all in gender politics, but I am happy with the wording. However, I will listen carefully to other noble Lords who, I am sure, will put forward a contrary view—we have already heard several today. This is a good and necessary Bill and I support it fully.
My Lords, I too support the intent of the Bill and certainly wish the Attorney-General well. As other noble Lords have said, it is disappointing that the Bill provides for only a small number of what might be described as very privileged women when we know that in the workplace many thousands of pregnant women or new mothers face discrimination and risk losing their jobs. In fact, one of the striking facets of the debate in the House of Commons was the number of comments made by Members of Parliament about the impact on women of pregnancy and the insecurities in the workplace. The noble Lord, Lord True, acknowledged that the Bill could have been so much more. It is a missed opportunity. I accept what the Government have said about the work being done, but we are being asked to set up a two-tier system for maternity leave in this country and there is a feeling of discomfort about that.
This has been a very good debate so far and I listened with great attention to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Randall. I must say I disagree with him about the issue of language; I do not see it as a technical issue. Fundamentally, a much more important set of principles lie behind the way language is used in the Bill. A colleague of mine counted the number of times “women” was used in the Commons debate and it came to over 300, yet the Bill makes no mention of women. Instead, we heard the rather inelegant terms “person who is pregnant” and “person who has given birth to a child”, which do not seem to add to what we understand as good English.
I have supported trans rights and gay rights over many years. I fought the iniquities of Section 28 and, as a Minister, I took the legislation through this House to allow for gay adoption. I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, whose speech I enjoyed, that, working in London and living in Birmingham, I am a fully paid up member of the metropolitan bubble and proud of it. However, I have become increasingly concerned that the hard-won rights of women over many decades are at risk of being watered down and marginalised as the single-sex spaces enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 come under increasing attack.
That is why this language is so important. Many public bodies are misinterpreting the Act, and many women’s sector organisations, especially those that seek to end violence against women and girls, fear loss of funding and commissioning if they want to provide single-sex exemptions. I am afraid that various government departments have weaselled down the words of the Equality Act in the guidance they have issued to public bodies. Local authorities have misinterpreted the Act and are threatening many small charities trying to provide these services at local level, and people there are frightened to speak up because they believe that they will be attacked and, if they are not careful on social media, accused of transphobia. The Government have remained silent because they themselves have a lot of this philosophy embedded in their advisory system. That is why the wording of the Bill is so important.
Work by Jane Clare Jones and Lisa Mackenzie has described the pattern of erasing sex in data collection and other areas of public policy. The ONS has caved into bullying—pathetic. The head of the ONS was interviewed, I think on the “Today” programme, and said that it was not going down the path it has now chosen. However, it has caved in, as many public bodies do, because they come under aggressive attack on social media and are accused of transphobia. The Government remain absolutely silent.
On the language, in her thoughtful contribution my noble friend Lady Gale talked about the fact that gender-neutral terms will often be appropriate. I agree with that. However, do we really want to see demeaning terms such as “menstruators”, “individuals with a cervix”, “birthing bodies” or even “chest feeders”? When the Brighton trust announced the use of the latter term, where was the Department of Health? It was absolutely silent, because it is cowed and frightened to speak up against this kind of absolute nonsense.
There are many parliamentarians who know that this is nonsense but they are frightened to speak up because of the abuse they will receive. Look at my honourable friend Rosie Duffield. What support has been given to her? Hardly anything, except from a few brave, dedicated people. It is shameful that we have allowed this situation to arise. That is why the Bill and its drafting are so important.
The justification was of course Jack Straw’s change in the convention and revised guidance. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, that was designed to promote the rights of women because previously, “he” was always taken to mean “he and she” in legislation. For that to be used against women in this Bill is extraordinary.
I have looked up the parliamentary counsel guidance. The latest version was produced by the Drafting Techniques Group in 2020. This is a most worthy body but it is not one that should be at the heart of government decision-making. I noted the advice on page 2, which says:
“Clarity is helped by the use of short sentences … Tell your story in a moderate, level tone. Legislation should speak firmly but not shout … While brevity may be good, brusqueness is not.”
That is good advice but is it slavishly followed in all legislation? I very much doubt it. We understand that six pieces of legislation since the original guidance was issued have used the word “women”, including the seminal Equality Act 2010.
I have to say that six minutes is a guide; it is not something that can be enforced by anybody in your Lordships’ House.
With respect, we do not have to take the privileges committee report tonight. This is a Second Reading debate and I am afraid that advisory guidance on a Second Reading debate is highly inappropriate. But I shall not go on much longer.
The noble Lord, Lord True, was very helpful in arranging a meeting last week—we are meeting him again—and I am grateful to him. He must know that the Bill in the way it is worded is indefensible. If this had been a normal Second Reading, the Minister would have observed this debate, gone back and said, “We’re going to get an amendment and we’ve got to change it.” I know we have only four days to go but I urge him to think again. He should also say that this will never be used as a future precedent in legislation. He should ensure that parliamentary counsel changes the guidance, because it is not up to the mark.
Finally, this is my great appeal. Please will the Government defend women who speak up for the protection of women’s rights based on sex? I come again to the outrageous abuse that some of my parliamentary colleagues have received by stating in perfectly reasonable terms that they are not transphobic, just reasonable people seeking to do their job, yet they do not get support from the people who know that what is happening to them is wrong. Above all else, I hope the Minister will say something about that.
My Lords, I am delighted that we have the chance to give this Bill its Second Reading today. It is long overdue and I am sure that there are many outside your Lordships’ Chamber who would be surprised that we do not already have this in place. I congratulate the Government on bringing in this legislation but note the speed with which it is required.
Reading the Library notes on this Bill reminded me of the shock I felt when my grandmother told me she had to leave work when she got married, because she would be taking a job away from a man. That a Minister would have to resign her position to take maternity leave is ludicrous and not in keeping with the world we live in. It is unacceptable that a woman should have to choose between her job and career and having a family.
As an athlete, having to fit the birth of my daughter around my competition schedule because there were no maternity rights was not easy—that is still very much ad hoc in sport today. There is a great deal of similarity between being an athlete and being in Parliament. The reality is that many women have to take different decisions from men about how to make it work, and delay having children or walk away from a role they care passionately about and are good at because it is impossible to find the right balance and support.
This Bill sends out a strong message. I would like to see provision for paternity, shared parental and adoption leave, as well as wider issues of statutory maternity pay and leave for MPs and their staff, included in other legislation.
We should also consider your Lordships’ Chamber. As younger Peers are appointed, we must have increased flexibility. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, on paying Ministers. I remember one occasion a couple of years ago when a returning Peer brought her baby to a Division, and because only a Peer can walk through the voting Lobby, the baby was passed down the line—fine for that one moment, but not a long-term solution to allow women to play a full part in political life. I know from the experience of being a parent of a young child in Parliament that, if you do not live in London, it can be very complicated. I know we choose to do this role, but I really think that Parliament can do better.
The six-month time limit is fine, but we should not stop looking for a greater degree of flexibility if required. I would also prefer it not to be a discretionary power for the Prime Minister to designate a Minister wishing to take maternity leave as a “Minister on leave”. It should be automatic. I have been thinking about whether they could be better described as a “Minister on maternity leave”, but I have concluded that I do not have a strong opinion on this form of language.
However, like others, I will raise the language used in this Bill. I support neutral language, and there are many benefits in terms of driving equality. Yet for so many we do not live in an equal society. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently said—this relates to the pandemic—that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is the “most urgent and immediate” threat to equality. We should seek to correct this. The fact that we measure pay gap, employment gap, educational attainment and a whole set of other metrics shows us that our society is not equal.
I have been contacted by women and men who asked why the word “woman” is in the Explanatory Notes and not the Bill. I will be clear: I think the word “woman” and variations of it should be used in this Bill. I know there will be many who will not agree with me raising this, but I see my role as a Member of your Lordships’ Chamber as being to raise issues that challenge.
I do not hate or want to dehumanise anyone. As a disabled woman, I have experienced discrimination and received a significant number of emails about the many forms it takes. This is a contentious issue and in this debate there will be many views; we are probably not all at the same point on the continuum. We need to be able to have an open discussion, without fear of retribution, of being cancelled or shouted down for discussing terminology or having a different view. Mine may or may not be the majority view beyond the debate today, but that does not mean we should not debate it.
I thought long and hard about joining the debate today and whether I could deal with any potential backlash that may come my way for saying that the word “woman” should be in this Bill. Many from different viewpoints have said that I should be careful. This is not the time to debate the wider aspects of what freedom of speech means; that is for another time, but we must tackle the abuse that women face for having a public view on a whole range of issues. Being told what my opinion should be does not encourage sharing of views and is detrimental to the long-term goal of equality.
Language is important. I have always said that language is the dress of thought. As we know, the specific language used in legislation is incredibly important. It has far-reaching consequences. It is about providing rights and protection and it is our duty to find the balance in that.
I have spent most of my life fighting for inclusion for everyone that society chooses to label as different. I have spent most of my life being othered by language, attitude and a lack of physical access. Growing up, I was called handicapped or a crippled child; luckily, there has been an evolution in that language. Perhaps we need to find a new form of language to include those who feel othered, but it must not be at the expense of the word “woman”.
One thing I am certain of is that many in your Lordships’ Chamber, and those who have a different view from mine on the use of language, want to stop the denigration of women. Excluding the word “woman” from this Bill and other potential legislation does not help the cause of equality for everyone or anyone.
My Lords, it has become almost formulaic to say that it is an honour to follow the previous speaker, but it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. She is a woman of quiet courage and total determination; she spoke from the heart and I hope we will heed her.
We have all said, and meant it, that we wish the Attorney-General well and a safe delivery of a healthy child. It is totally fitting that we should be passing legislation that enables her not to have to worry about her job or future—unless the Prime Minister changes his mind about her appointment, but that is a wholly different issue—and we can all support the objectives of this Bill, narrow and late as it is. I associate myself with all the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and others on that.
Apart from my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, with whom I normally find myself in agreement, but certainly and emphatically not tonight, we are all concerned about the language, particularly the erasure of “woman”, “maternal” and “maternity”. We are very fortunate to have a glorious mother tongue—I use the words very deliberately. In our language there are some rich, marvellous and emotive words, none more so than “maternal” and “mother”. There cannot be a Member of your Lordships’ House who does not have fond memories of a mother or grandmother. For many—I include myself—a mother has been the most significant and important figure in their early life. I still think of her very fondly.
I believe it is completely wrong to have the ugly insensitivity of “person” in the language in this Bill. “Personhood and apple pie”—how wonderfully and trippingly it comes off the tongue. I disagree with what has been implicit in many of the fine speeches we have heard, led by my noble friend Lady Noakes: a sort of recognition that we cannot really do anything about it this time. We can. We have a Committee stage on Thursday. If my noble friend the Minister really recognises this, as he does to a degree in the changed Explanatory Notes, and if we can have a translation of that recognition into a free vote, which there should be—I believe all votes are free votes, but I know that is not a commonly held view—we should be able to change this Bill without delay.
If my right honourable friend the Attorney-General is great with child and could produce a child very soon, and this is one of the reasons for the hurry, we can forget that, because I shall introduce an amendment on Thursday which would make this possible for her, if the child is born between
I beg my noble friend to talk to his colleagues in government, because the amendments that we shall move do not alter by one jot or tittle the thrust and content of the Bill. All they do, by using the words “woman” and “mother”, is recognise properly that the Bill is about maternity. If the Government were to accept that, the passage of the Bill would not be delayed by more than 24 hours at the very most. As I said, if the child were to be born in that period, and if we accept the amendment that I will have tabled or something like it, then there is not a problem at all.
We are guardians of many things in your Lordships’ House, and one of the things that we should guard with most jealous fervour is the English language. I hope that we will strike a small blow for that as we strike a big blow for motherhood when we come to dispose of this Bill in Committee. I accept the fact that we do not normally vote on Second Reading, and I am not calling for that. I know that my noble friend Lady Noakes, who made a very fine speech, is not calling for that either. I am, however, calling for common sense to triumph over the language of bureaucracy. I hope that we will make progress in the right direction here, just as we are making progress in acknowledging motherhood. We should not do so with a Bill that does not acknowledge motherhood.
My Lords, I am going to use the formula: “It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.” He always makes me smile. The Government have got themselves into a real pickle on this one, have they not? The Minister might be surprised to hear that I am going to give him a bit of wiggle room, because I very much support what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is trying to say here. The erasure of women in public life, in literature and in all sorts of ways has horrified me. The debate has become so toxic and so unacceptable that many of us keep our heads down and try not to engage at all. That is quite often what I do, simply because I work on so many issues, and that becomes difficult when I get distracted by the vileness and hate.
However, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that only women get pregnant. Legally, that is not true anymore because trans men have pregnancies and they have babies. I have held a baby by a trans man. Perhaps the Minister would like to put “women and trans men” into the Bill: that might be an acceptable way forward for all of us. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, spoke about “woke Brighton”. I come from Brighton; when I was living there, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not woke. The whole thing about chest feeding was absolutely ludicrous because, of course, men have breasts; they get breast cancer. The whole thing is utter stupidity, and you have to wonder who thinks these things up. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, also made an interesting point about the wording being at odds with other drafting. That seems a little bit strange these days, but that is something that I gather the Minister is going to expand on.
Most of the speeches in this Chamber today have been very, very concerned with the depiction of women and how we are treated in our society. One thing that we can do is make misogyny a hate crime. That is something that we should do urgently, and we should raise it at every single opportunity so that people who treat women in that sort of way are actually brought to justice.
On the wider aspects of the Bill, it is, of course, utterly unfair. I can see why it is being brought in, but why is it not for all women? It is absolutely appalling that this is only for a tiny section of very privileged, elite women. It should be for all women. Why is there discretionary power for the Prime Minister? That is awful, because the Prime Minister is most often a man, so it has to be a man’s discretionary power.
“The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently described instances of pregnancy and maternity discrimination as one of the most urgent and immediate threats to equality during the pandemic. A survey by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 46% of women who have been suspended from work because of their pregnancy have been suspended on incorrect terms, including 33% on furlough and another 13% on sick pay, or told to take holiday or to start maternity pay.”
We do not have equality in Britain. We are meant to be a foremost democracy in the world and we do not have equality for 50% of our population. It strikes me that there must be many, many women who have been held back by this because misogyny is so entrenched in our society that we do not even notice it; we do not see it when it is happening. Many thousands of women—millions—have been held back from doing all that they can to improve society. Again and again, we hear that when you have women on boards, for example, or when you have women as part of work teams, the work is better. The thinking is better because it is a different perspective.
Quite honestly, this Bill is perfectly acceptable in its very narrow, late way, and while we cannot blame the Minister for it being this late, we can perhaps blame him for it being so narrow, so that is a message that he could take back. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said in her opening remarks that it is a tiny step. Dear me—it is a tiny step on the right path, but we really need to see a few more giant steps.
My Lords, my comments are going to follow those that have been made by the majority of Members before me. I am not sure that I have anything particularly new to add, but this is an important issue. I very much hope that the weight of numbers will have some sort of influence on the Minister and the Government.
I welcome the Bill and share the comments that others have made. It is late and, to be honest, we should be leading in this field, but we are very much lagging behind. I remember that, when I was first elected a Member of Parliament in 1992, and when I looked round at my fellow new MPs in the Labour group, it was amazing how disproportionately most of us did not have children. That is what it has been at every stage: we have always been late at making it easier for women to be involved in politics and to have a family as well. Nobody could have explained that more strongly than the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has done. Let us not stop here: it is with some humility that we should say that this is good legislation. It is something to be proud of because the Government have got themselves out of a bit of a difficulty with one person, but it cannot rest here. I welcome the comments that the Minister made about ensuring that we look at the other issues as well.
The main reason why I put my name down to speak in this debate was to offer support for the reasoned amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, very ably moved and that colleagues from across the House have spoken to as well. It might be argued that it does not matter: if you look at this Bill, what is going to change if we have the word “woman” rather than “person”? However, it matters and it matters a lot. My noble friend Lord Hunt really pressed this point and was right to do so.
More than anything, it is just common sense. We are not here to pass legislation that does not make sense to the public whom we represent. If we were to go out into the streets of our country and try to explain to the electorate—to our citizens—that we have got ourselves into a position where we are not permitted to use the word “woman” in a Bill that deals with maternity, they would not know where we were coming from. Yet that is the argument that the Minister in the House of Commons made, and it is the argument I thought that the Minister here made today. Common sense and clarity must mean that legislation that we pass makes sense in its language to the people whose lives it will affect.
Of course, this is even more important because of the wider cultural context in which this debate is taking place. There is a wider debate at the moment which risks denying that biological sex exists. I cannot sign up to that. It makes it far more difficult for women-only spaces and for the protection of women in certain circumstances, which has been hard fought for over the years, to actually be carried out. As my noble friend Lord Hunt said, you can see public bodies and areas of public policy where there is now a struggle with how much or how little gender-specific pronouns can be used. This must be sorted out. Equality of opportunity and gender-neutral language were never about making it difficult, embarrassing or awkward for us to use gender-specific pronouns when it is appropriate to do so. I accept and understand that this debate can be difficult as social mores change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said, it is about finding a language where all feel comfortable—but it was never meant to be a situation where women were fearful of expressing a view they strongly held.
I think language does matter, and I welcome gender-neutral language where appropriate. I remember my first Bill in the House of Commons: I was involved in legislation about teachers and was told that the term “he” in it had to apply to female teachers as well, and “headmaster” applied to head teachers of any gender. That is what the legislation, in terms of gender-neutral language, was trying to overcome. We must be clear on that because we must defend it. We must not allow what was a good piece of legislation, or a good piece of advice, to muddy the waters on some of the key issues.
The last point I make—and this really is my plea to the Minister—is that I am not sure why the Government have used “person” rather than “woman”. I was not sure having read the debate in the House of Commons, and I am not sure having listened to the Minister today. I am pretty sure that the 2007 guidance did not require the Government to use “person”. Is he saying that if he presented legislation to the House today which talked about “women who get pregnant”, the Bill would not have the force of law? If he is saying that, I would challenge it merely on the grounds that legislation has been passed since the 2007 guidance—whether they were Bills related to maternity, pensions or equality of rights—that uses the term “woman”. If it would have been legal to use “woman” rather than “person” in the Bill, why did he not do so? If it was not compulsory, it had to be a matter of choice. If the Government chose to use “person” rather than “woman”, I hope that he will be able to explain that in his closing remarks.
Other than that, I think the Minister has been helpful, both in the meeting he had with some of us before this debate and with the open manner in which he introduced it. I hope he will continue to act in that way as we take the Bill through the House of Lords.
My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness who has just spoken on the way she discussed the word “woman”, and I was pleased that my noble friend moved her amendment. I would go so far as to say that, if an amendment is tabled in Committee, I will support it. I am a very loyal Member—indeed, at least one of the noble Baronesses sitting on the Opposition Benches teases me about that. But on this issue I am quite clear: we should use the word “woman”.
I have had the privilege of being married for 60 years, and my wife and I have three children. My wife trained across the road at St Thomas’. The first child came quickly, but the second and third were planned, because my wife and I agreed when we were engaged that both of us would like to work in life and that she should work on whatever form of medicine she chose. She chose to be a full-time general practitioner for most of her working life and certainly when she had the third child. By then she was the senior partner and, as I recall, took only three or four weeks off after having that baby. Of course, in those days there was no formal maternity allowance—it was a matter of individual choice. The decision we made was that we would use our resources to appoint a nanny, child help and childcare, and all muck in. Times have changed, and that is good.
My problem is to try to set aside the individual and look at the strategy being followed. Here we have one of the key offices of state. Every key office of state is probably very demanding and very important in its impact on our economy and our country. It happens to be particularly important at this stage because of Brexit and the problems we all know about in its implementation—particularly Northern Ireland and the union. Somebody is leaving a key office for six months. I do not know what plans the Government have made on two aspects, but I imagine that the Prime Minister believes that the present incumbent is absolutely the key person to do the job. They are not a second choice, but for those six months there will have to be a second choice. That is a pretty tough call on whoever that person may be because, under the Bill as drafted, they know they are out in six months.
But it goes deeper than that, does it not? The civil servants, who are key to implementing law, are put in a difficult position because it is a challenge to their management. I wonder what thought has been given to that. This brings us back to one of the core criticisms of the Bill: that it did not encompass a whole breadth of issues raised in the Commons. Therefore, it is a bad stretch, in my view, to have emergency legislation caused by the situation of one person. Are we really saying that, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer turns out to be a woman who has a child due somewhere around Budget time, the woman can decide to take six months’ leave? In terms of the interests of the country, I would submit that that is a bit of a challenge. It is a bit of a conundrum, and I have some reservations about the way we are producing this emergency Bill when we have not, in my judgment, thought it all through.
I reflected a little further. I have the privilege to be a trustee of the pension fund. We work very hard to try to help pensioners of that fund who get into all sorts of “scrapes”. But we do not actually change the provisions of a Bill: we find methods to help them or advise them, whatever it may be. Basically, we have a problem here.
I asked my daughter, who is self-employed, “What is the maternity provision for you, my darling?” The answer came back: “None”. Then I did a bit of research. We are talking about 1.63 million women in our country who get nothing. Once again, I think somebody should have done a little bit of pre-thinking.
I have thought very long and hard about the Bill, and I am not going to oppose it. Nevertheless, two things come to mind: first, the ones I have raised on the managerial side, if you like, of somebody taking maternity leave from a very senior position in government, and, secondly, the word “woman”. For me, as a man, it is crystal clear that the word “woman” should remain. The Government will have to wrestle with the management dimensions, but if there is an amendment down on “woman” or “women” I—for once—will actually support it.
My Lords, let me declare an interest: I am the chairman of the Genesis Research Trust, which deals with research into women’s diseases and in particular with pregnancy problems, miscarriage, stillbirth and infertility among many other things including cancers. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True. Should I have said “the noble person”? Perhaps not. I do not wish to behave in any way disrespectfully. He very helpfully listened to our problems beforehand and I hope that will continue before the next stage of the Bill.
Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I have to say that every single one of us in this Chamber, every single person outside in the street and every citizen of the United Kingdom was born from a mother’s uterus. We forgive the muddled biology that we heard a little earlier in this debate. The fact is that only a woman can give rise to a baby. The environment in the womb is critical to our development until we finally die at the age of 70 or 80, if we are lucky. That is important. That defines so much of what makes our humanity. Michael Meaney, who is a very great biologist from Canada, showed very clearly in the studies he did in Toronto and later in Singapore, where I have been somewhat associated, that what happens during pregnancy at various stages affects the development of the baby, including its cognitive ability, its functions and the diseases that it might develop later on at the age of 40, 50 or 60, as have many other scientists. That is fundamental and that depends on the woman, her health and the way she is protected, so we are extremely grateful for the Bill. That the Attorney-General has this opportunity is terrific. The problem is that that does not always apply to some women who have stress with their hormones and all sorts of other problems.
Let me leave Singapore for a moment and come to domestic matters because this is critical. The noble Lord, Lord True, might like to hear from me that, in 2018, 2,943 babies were stillborn, and for 60% of them the cause was unknown. Birth defects were a very minor problem. In many cases, it was poor medicine. Sometimes this was avoidable, but in many cases the reason for stillbirth is completely unknown. These women leave hospital absolutely bereft, and many of them never recover after that loss of a pregnancy. That loss of life within them is critical to that person. If that is not enough, let me remind the House that something close to 200,000 women each year miscarry a pregnancy, and some of them will miscarry several times. I think my record was a woman miscarrying 19 times before she finally gave up being pregnant. One of the commonest things I heard during my professional career from these women when they sat in front of me in tears having had a miscarriage or a stillbirth was, “I do not feel that I am a proper woman.” That was a very common phrase in my clinic in the last 40 years.
If that is not enough either, let me remind the House that about one in 20 women is infertile and they strive hard to become women by being pregnant. That is a goal like none other in their lives. It is for them the most important thing they can do. This is not some aberrant mentality. It is natural. It is born as a result of our evolution as humans. It is part of our humanity, and it is essential. Most of them do not achieve it. For example, figures in Europe show that, after six cycles of in vitro fertilisation, only 43% of women get pregnant. We tend to forget that there is no treatment for them. That is very important.
We are rushing this Bill through for a particular reason, and nobody would doubt the need to get it thorough for the Attorney-General, but what message does it show to women who have lost babies or lost a pregnancy or lost the life within them? Most of them come from poorer, disadvantaged communities. That is true for most diseases that affect us, and it certainly applies to diseases of pregnancy. We have one of the highest stillbirth rates in Europe. We still do not understand why.
Finally, if the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, decides to press her amendment to the Motion to a vote, I will join her because I think it is important to consider this. I think the Minister will see that there is a growing head of steam. I know he was left carrying the baby on this Bill. It was not something that he desires and he had nothing to do with the drafting. We understand that very well, but it is still a problem. Why would I want to go through the Lobby? I would go through the Lobby because I owe it to the hundreds of women who sat in front of me in tears saying, “I don’t feel a proper woman.”
My Lords, it is always an education to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I declare an interest as an expectant grandfather. One of my daughters, Shula Markeson, is expecting her second child, my fourth grandchild, in a few weeks’ time. In this expectant state, I find it extraordinary that until the pregnancy of the Attorney-General, to whom I send my best wishes, no one in Government seems to have recognised that Ministers, like other women, get pregnant and are entitled to paid maternity leave. The fact that we are considering fast-track legislation today, with all the defects in parliamentary scrutiny that that involves—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale—tells the House everything it needs to know about the low priority historically accorded by successive Governments to issues of maternity. I agree with my noble friend Lady Hayman and others that the Government need to give priority to more general reform.
I also think it is regrettable that, in a Bill which belatedly recognises the needs of female Ministers, Clause 1 confers benefits only if the Prime Minister so allows at his or her discretion—a point touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. When he replies, can the Minister give an example of when the Prime Minister might refuse to allow a pregnant Minister to be designated in circumstances where she would be remaining in post but for her pregnancy? Why is this not a duty to pay maternity leave?
Also, can the Minister confirm that it is not intended by this discretionary benefit that the Prime Minister should ever be able to say to a pregnant Minister, “Very sorry but, because you’re pregnant, I’m going to sack you”? That is rightly unacceptable in all other walks of life. In his opening speech, the Minister said that the Bill sends out a “vital message” to women that they can pursue a political career, without needing to choose between that career and their family. Does the Minister really think that the conferral of the benefits on a discretionary basis is consistent with these laudable aims?
On the language of the Bill, Parliament has often referred to the person who gives birth to a child as a woman and, indeed, a mother. Examples have already been given and I add one—Section 33(1) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 defines a “mother” as:
“The woman who is carrying or has carried a child”.
However, your Lordships should recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, was correct to point out that there are trans men, who were born female, who have given birth. One brought legal proceedings in the Court of Appeal last year. A judgment was given, in which noble Lords may be interested, by the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, in the McConnell case. It is reported in the third volume of the Weekly Law Reports for 2020 at page 683.
The Lord Chief Justice explained that the claimant had been registered at birth as female, but had transitioned to live in the male gender and had received a gender recognition certificate under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, stating that his gender is male. He then underwent artificial insemination, became pregnant and gave birth to a child. He brought legal proceedings complaining that the child’s birth certificate recorded him as the mother. He said that, because he had transitioned, he should be recorded as the father or as a parent. The Court of Appeal rejected his complaint and said that recording him as the mother was not a breach of his human rights.
The Lord Chief Justice said that, as a matter of common law and under the legislation governing the registration of births, the person who gave birth to a child is the mother, and the Supreme Court dismissed an application for permission to appeal. In light of that judgment, I do not think that there are any legal difficulties in referring to mothers or women in the Bill. The mother of Parliaments, in doing that, would be showing no disrespect to trans men.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his opening statement and for clearly setting out the purpose of the Bill. It is narrow in its application, and I am happy to support it through all its stages in this House. I agree that it is wrong, in this day and age, that Cabinet Ministers who take maternity leave are required to resign. I welcome the extension of provisions to cover the position of opposition officeholders, as well. Women in Parliament and public life generally have faced massive challenges, and our ways of working must be brought up to date as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
However, like other noble Lords, it seems strange to me that it takes the circumstances of an individual case to prompt legislation of this nature. The public will find it very odd that this situation has not been legislated for long before now, rather than being rushed through to accommodate specific circumstances. I also take the opportunity to wish the Attorney-General and her family well, at this time.
I share the view that it would be far better for the Government to bring forward more comprehensive proposals than this legislation to cover paternity, shared parental or adoption leave. I cannot think of any real reason why they could not have included these. None of them is covered in the current legislation; nor is the situation of Cabinet Ministers who are affected by sickness and need to take leave. In recent years, we have had examples of Cabinet Ministers who have had to step down as a result of sickness. It would be good if there was legislation to cover those circumstances, as well.
I welcome the commitment by the Minister and the Government to give urgent consideration to issues such as this and to bring forward proposals to address outstanding parental leave issues in due course. I welcome what the Minister said about an update before the Summer Recess, and we look forward to that. It would also be useful to know how the legislation before us and the situation that has been presented compares to provision made in the devolved Administrations. It is important to have consistency across the United Kingdom.
There are a couple of specific issues that I want to highlight on the particular provisions of the Bill. The first is the time limit of six months for paid leave and the second is the discretionary nature of the provisions, whereby the Prime Minister is vested with certain powers that do not normally apply elsewhere—a matter just alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. That Ministers are public officeholders, appointed by the sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister using the royal prerogative, limits what can be put in statute. I recognise that. However, having to seek the permission of the Prime Minister of the day to take maternity leave, as provided for in the Bill, seems incredibly anachronistic. It leaves open the rather bizarre possibility that the Prime Minister could refuse such a request. Neither a Minister in such a position nor the Prime Minister of the day should ever be put in that position, however theoretical. I think that the six-month period is too restrictive; there is no good reason why it should not be for up to 12 months. The current law on statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, after all, and it would seem reasonable to extend the period to that.
It is also important that the Government address wider, general issues concerning maternity leave and statutory maternity pay. No one should face discrimination or undue financial loss as a result of having a child and no one should ever be in the position of having to give up their job. The low level of statutory maternity pay or allowance generally in this country is cast into sharp relief by the provisions of this Bill, which allow six months’ maternity leave on full pay. As this legislation is brought forward today to deal with the position of Cabinet Ministers, it cannot be long before the Government address wider issues affecting mothers and fathers across the board in this country.
Finally, I fully support the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in her recent amendment. I wholeheartedly endorse the argument that she and other noble Lords have advanced in advocating their support for that amendment to the Motion, and I will certainly support her, if she presses it to a vote.
I have great concerns, as expressed in the other place and by noble Lords, about the use of the word “person”, as opposed to “woman”, in the Bill. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation from the Government for why this is the case. It is baffling, and not just to Members of Parliament—it is something that most members of the public will find utterly inexplicable. I hope that the Government listen to what noble Lords have said in this House and move to rectify the situation, as the Bill goes through its different stages.
My Lords, I support all that my noble friends Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lady Morris of Yardley have said, so I will not go over those arguments. If the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, wishes to press her amendment, I will go through the Lobby with her, because it is awful that the word “person” rather than “woman” is used in this Bill.
This Bill is either too little or too much. It is too much in the sense that it is extraordinary that the Government have found time to fast-track this measure while, at the same time, protesting that parliamentary time cannot be found for other urgent measures. For example, the Coronavirus Act allows local authority meetings to be held remotely. This is working well but, at the moment, operates only until
On this day, coronavirus is at the forefront of all of our minds. This Bill displays an odd sense of non-logical thinking in relation to public administration. It is also inadequate as a maternity and paternal rights measure. We have had maternity and adoption leave since 2002, and shared paternal leave since 2015, yet the Bill omits any reference to these and confines itself to maternal leave. The maternity leave period is far too short, and the measure is merely discretionary in nature and has shortcomings that would have been exposed by an equality impact assessment.
The Bill addresses the position only of Ministers and other officeholders, not Peers and Members of Parliament. It does not address the wider issues of statutory maternity leave and pay and redundancy protection. I welcome the letter that Stella Creasy MP in the other place has sent to all of us today, in which she sets out how things should be.
The Bill is welcome in as far as it goes, but it is a small, rushed step in an important area. I offer the Attorney-General and her family all my best wishes, and I hope that the Minister will come back to us at Third Reading with amendments.
My Lords, my father was the world’s first Minister for Health and Motherhood in the New South Wales State Parliament in Australia. He introduced a child endowment, a form of family support, in the 1920s. I was a founding member of The 300 Group in 1980, with Lesley Abdela and others across the political spectrum, which encouraged equal representation of women in Parliament.
It is disappointing to see that, irrespective of the challenges women face getting into Parliament, we still have barriers such as these for women, should they choose to start or continue to have children once they are elected. Despite this, I welcome the intent behind the Bill, although I find it extraordinary that this issue is only being considered in the 21st century, with the Government lagging behind modern society. Most businesses adopted this approach long ago.
“make clear that the Government are listening.”
I echo the view of Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, that the right to maternity leave and maternity cover should extend to all MPs, and I would go further and say that it should also cover Ministers in the House of Lords. I am also sympathetic to calls for paternity, adoption and shared parental leave to be extended to both Houses—Ministers and MPs—so that they can, if they wish, spend precious time with their families while knowing that their jobs are being covered.
We all know the importance of family, and that those early days are formative. Once gone, you cannot turn the clock back. It feels wrong that we should be introducing a Bill at great speed for the benefit of one senior Minister when, with a little more time and effort, we could be benefiting many more without using up more parliamentary time. I urge the Government to give this benefit and choice to all parents in both Houses.
My Lords, Members of the House of Commons voted to give Ministers formal, paid maternity leave for the first time, and it was hailed as an important and long-overdue change. The Government pledged to bring forward more sweeping maternity protections before the summer recess. Many MPs made statements during the debate. Significantly, the Minister, Penny Mordaunt, said that the Bill will put an end to the “wholly unacceptable situation” of Ministers having to resign to take leave.
Two significant points were made: that the Bill fails to address adoption, and that it fails to address shared paternal leave. The most important statement was made by the mother of the House, Harriet Harman. She said that the Bill should be an impetus to addressing low maternity pay, and that the Government have “done the right thing”. She went on to say that maternity pay is £152 per week—less than half what you would get on the minimum wage. The Bill was passed without any opposition at Third Reading. I ask the Minister whether it might be wiser to see how private sector companies have provided maternity leave to their employees and paternity leave to males.
My Lords, I am sure that we all wish Suella Braverman well in her forthcoming maternity leave, and this Bill is welcome. It is notable for both ensuring her income is fully protected, and for the actual cover it gives her, meaning that she can devote herself to caring for her child without worrying about being on demand 24/7, as is required for the post of Attorney-General.
“When I needed to take maternity leave as the Minister for Public Health in 2001, I asked the Health Secretary what I should do. He did not know, and said, ‘Ask the Prime Minister.’ He did not know, and said, ‘Ask the Cabinet Secretary.’ He had absolutely no idea, and as Ministers are Crown appointments, he said it was really a matter for the Queen, but nobody thought we should be asking Her Majesty”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 552.]
The fundamental problem is that the Bill benefits only a tiny number of women at a time when life is more difficult for mothers with babies than at any time in modern history. I wish to ask a series of questions, for which I would be grateful to have a reply from the Minister.
Does this Bill mean that maternity leave is merely a perk granted by an employer if only this legislation is passed? Thousands of women right across the country are having to leave work to care for a child. Stella Creasy MP has pointed out that during the pandemic,
“one in four women who are pregnant or a new mum have said that they have faced discrimination, and that they are losing their jobs or being furloughed”.—[
Surely this Bill effectively establishes a two-tier system for maternity leave. Where does it leave women MPs of childbearing age? Why does it not extend to them, or, for that matter, to all staff in this Parliament, as other speakers have said? Where does it leave women who are self-employed and who take maternity leave, some of whom have had to take the Government to court to resolve the injustice of the predicament they face? Where does it leave fathers over paternity leave, especially those partnered by women who wish to return to work straight after childbirth?
Surely we need a Bill to give at least every woman in the Palace of Westminster, if not in the country, the same rights that this Bill is giving to the Attorney-General. That being the case, can the Minister indicate whether any advice has been given about whether, once this Bill is enacted, the Government could be vulnerable to judicial review for not granting the same right more widely? As the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Maria Miller MP, argued during the Commons Second Reading
“being forced to leave a job for being pregnant is exactly what happens to thousands of pregnant women. In righting this wrong for Government Ministers, will the Paymaster General also undertake to right it for women throughout our country? Codifying the protection of a pregnant woman’s job is exactly what thousands of women need now. The people we represent want to know that Ministers are being treated no differently from them. Routinely identifying pregnant women for redundancy is too familiar a problem … We cannot ignore the fact that for thousands, current legislation provides protection only in theory but not in practice.”—[
That, in a nutshell, coming from a senior Conservative supporter of this Government, is exactly the issue that I ask the Minister to address in his response.
My Lords, I am not the only Member of this House to have been lobbied about the wording of this Bill. I entirely approve of its practical purpose, but I too question the use of the word “person”, when “lady”, “woman” or “mother” would be normal usage in relation to maternity issues or pregnancy and childbirth. I understand the desire to avoid any insensitive use in legislation of gender-specific words, but that convention is not inviolate. We do not stop using the word “Lords” to include all who are Members of your Lordships’ House. The Government’s justification in the other place was that
“the convention that we are now operating under … was introduced by Jack Straw in 2007. The intention of the guidance on using gender-neutral language was to avoid demeaning women by implying that only men could undertake certain roles, and that drafting convention has remained.”—[
Jack Straw used a ministerial Statement, and a future Parliament is not committed to a convention; it is not law. My personal experience of this was a ministerial Statement by Jack Straw when he was Lord Chancellor in 2008, specifically drafted to enable me to withdraw an annulment Motion, which has since been set aside. In December 2013, answering a short debate about wording and grammar in legislation, the much-respected noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, said from the very Dispatch Box in front of the Minister—it is worth repeating in full:
“The guidance also recognises that there must be some flexibility and that there will be some Acts where only gender-specific drafting can be usefully applied. In a case where a person has to be of a particular gender—male or female—gender-neutral drafting does not require drafters to avoid referring to the gender. I think your Lordships would agree that that would be the case for legislation about maternity.”—[Official Report, 12/12/13; col. 1014.]
Does that clear statement not say it all?
Common sense, reflecting the biologically unique role of a mother who bears a child in her womb and brings it to term, says there is no conceivable discourtesy or demeaning of a woman or womanhood by using the correct wording in Clause 1(3). Clearly the Government and the drafters of this sensible Bill have anticipated the unease over the use of the word “person”. The Minister in the other place called the word “jarring”. Why introduce a jarring word, particularly in Clause 1(3), when a totally accurate phrase is to hand to clarify? I thank the Minister for his letter, but I wonder whether he is able to produce any greater defensive explanation than already mentioned, and whether he is prepared to gainsay the words of his ministerial colleague? Espousing the Explanatory Memorandum misses the point.
If Parliament wills it, a convention which may be totally reasonable and sensible in other contexts does not have to be slavishly followed in this Bill. That would make it legally sound. How can there be any grounds for legal challenge in the courts? As drafted, it only invites ridicule of a delusional Parliament, apart from the distress already expressed by many who object to so sensitive a condition as maternity being depersonalised in this way. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation and hope for a reconsideration, but failing that, this should be a matter for debate in Committee.
My Lords, given the number of speakers, I shall take very little of your Lordships’ time. I welcome the Bill to allow Ministers to take paid maternity leave while remaining in Government. The catalyst for the Bill, as we have been told, is the pregnancy of the Attorney-General, and I join other noble Lords in wishing her well.
The office of Attorney-General, which I had the privilege of holding, is unique in the constitution. Shortly after taking office, I swore an ancient oath, in full fig, in the Lord Chief Justice’s court—namely, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf—that I would sue the Queen’s process “after our cunning.” I understand that to mean that I use my cunning in its better sense.
The law officers perform a wide range of duties in the public interest. In those roles, they are independent of the Government and are not bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility. Deploying my cunning, acquired in the course of 11 years in public office, from Cabinet down, I surmised, with the advent of a new Government in 1997, that there might be a gap in the Government’s legislative programme at that point. In short, the Government might not have enough ready-made Bills to hand. As it happened, there was a Bill gathering dust in the law officers’ chambers awaiting such an opportunity to allow the functions of the Attorney-General to be exercised by the Solicitor-General. The Law Officers Bill passed through both Houses without dissent and remains on the statute book as the Law Officers Act 1997.
The Explanatory Notes to the present Bill state that the “legal exercise” of a very senior office, such as a Secretary of State,
“cannot be ‘covered’ by another Minister”.
The Government argue that for these functions to be executed, another Minister may have to be appointed at the same rank. This is the ministerial ceiling problem that the Bill seeks to cure. That must be right for a Secretary of State, but the Bill is of general application and the notes appear to be the same. Will the Minister explain the necessity of the Bill for the role of the Attorney-General? In short, my specific question is: what is the practical effect—other than the payment of maternity allowance, which I strongly support —for the specific office of the Attorney-General, which I, like others, understand to be the trigger for the Bill?
I hope the Minister will assure the House that there is no intention to undermine the office of the Solicitor-General, which is also ancient, having been created in 1461. The Act that I shepherded through Parliament in 1997 to enable the Solicitor-General to exercise all the functions of the Attorney corrected an anomaly in the 1944 Act so that the Solicitor-General can now act without the specific authority of the Attorney-General. I hope the Minister will agree that, other than the payment of a maternity allowance to the Attorney-General, there was no need for this hurriedly introduced Bill to deal with the special needs of the Attorney-General. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. It may well be that the Act that I passed through Parliament was forgotten.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for the time that he has given in speaking to many noble Lords on this issue in the past week. In my short period in this House, this is the first debate that I have sat through where there has been so much agreement among all noble Lords—agreement about the fact that we all accept that the Bill is being rushed through, and that perhaps it should have happened a lot earlier. Maybe Governments of all complexions tend not to push things until sometimes a particular incident makes that necessary.
It is of course a narrow Bill, which is understandable for the reasons that we have heard. We wish the Attorney-General great health and happiness in what she is going to be going through; I am sure she is looking forward to her maternity leave. There is something to be said for the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I doubt that it will now be taken, but it would have meant that we would not have had to have rushed quite so much to get this through in time for the Attorney-General’s maternity leave.
There have been some wonderful speeches today, demonstrating great expertise. I agree 100% with everything in the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. I thought it was a well-crafted speech that more or less said everything that I would have liked to have been able to say, although I would not have been able to say it in quite such a good way. I feel strongly that this today is something that your Lordships’ House has to show some genuine common sense over. I refer of course to the wording and the exclusion of the word “woman” from the Bill. Many people out in the public watching or listening to this or reading about it cannot understand how we in this House of Lords could be suggesting a Bill about maternity while avoiding the word “woman”. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, made many really sensible points about this.
I thought the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was right in what was almost a condemnation of Her Majesty’s Government for not speaking out over the past years, when now it has somehow become almost unacceptable to say certain things. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said, it has become so that many women and men—perhaps even more so for men—do not want to speak out and say things that would lead to them being trolled on social media or treated as if they were somehow transphobic.
If we in this Chamber and this Parliament cannot start to make a stand then we are on a really slippery slope. The Bill gives us that opportunity. Yes, it could be in a much wider Bill and, yes, it could have brought in all sorts of other issues, but we are where we are, and we need to get it through.
I appeal to the Minister. I know he is not the Minister who will make the final decision, but I hope that today’s debate, showing unanimity on that particular aspect of the wording, means that we will see that change. If we do not do that this time and we leave the wording as it is, that will send a signal that even here, in this wonderful House of Lords, we are not prepared to stand up for what is right and decent and common sense.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey. Indeed, it is a great pleasure to be part of something that happens occasionally but is always wonderful when it does, which is people around the House, with their various experiences, intelligences and insights, joining together to urge on the Government a really sensible change in legislation.
To the suggestion that this cannot be done in time, I am sure there are others around the House who, as I have, have spent time in the City or in similarly pressured situations and have turned wording around overnight and got it right. Indeed, I know there are people like that in government or we would not have managed Brexit. This is merely an application of the skills that the Government have to this particular instance, and I urge my noble friend to get his friends to sort this out rather than thinking that this is something that can be shuffled through as an oversight.
In the matter of women’s equality, little things matter. Yes, there are big things and big occasions and, yes, there have been through history and are now women who have given their lives for this, particularly now in Iran, but generally progress has been made in little things. Getting the MCC to admit women did not count for nothing. It is a grain of sand but one that has landed on one side of the scales and will not come back. It is going to be a while—we have had about 150 years of progress and maybe it will be another 150 before we get where we want to go—but that does not mean we should flag, give up or let things like this Bill pass.
Motherhood is, I hope, something on which the next decade or so will see real progress. It is not an estate that we honour in this country in the way that we should. Yes, all of us are individually grateful for our birth and I think we all recognise that the estate of motherhood is good for society, but those who undertake it are treated miserably when they wish to come back into the world to take their place, having undertaken that duty for all of us. Are they accorded equality? Are they given the same chance and space as if they had stayed working? No. That will take a lot of change. It will not be easy and it will be argumentative, but it is an issue on which we must push.
The status of motherhood in the Bill, its denigration by the choice of the Bill’s wording, is not something that we should tolerate. As other speakers have said, the attempt to erase the word “women”, to remove all its meaning except to be human, is something that we should not tolerate. We have to stand firm against this. I am hoping that the Minister will hear the call of Millicent Fawcett,
“Courage calls to courage everywhere”, gather his forces and get this Government to remedy the wrong that has been done. Indeed, I hope they will go further than that and get themselves into a position where they are happy to make it clear that women, women’s rights and single-sex rights have a place in society, and that that shall not be erased by the pressure group that must not be named.
My Lords, I will start with what I hope is obvious. Among many others, I consistently supported feminists who campaigned for a wide range of women’s rights including maternity rights. I always supported the rights demanded by the LGBT campaigners for same-sex marriage, adoption and many other entitlements to equality. I always abhorred and campaigned against Section 28. I am grateful for the education and clarity of all those involved for my own political development.
It follows that I wholly support the purpose of the Bill, though I wish it were addressing wider issues. I am also very critical of the language in it for good reason. I cannot accept the slurs levelled at women such as Rosie Duffield MP or JK Rowling for simply acknowledging biological facts. I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and I will back an amendment. The vitriol is ghastly and intended to stop proper debate, to bully and to impose cult thinking on what can realistically be understood only through democratic dialogue.
I trust that nobody will repeat what is sometimes said, and is a slander—that those of us who take this view are transphobic or in the pay of some ultra right-wing organisation here or in the United States. The Government should say today that they will speak up for the people vilified for supporting women’s rights. My objections to erasing words such as “women” and “female” from the description of an individual’s biological sex and their replacement with the tortured formulations of the Bill are simple.
First, legislation must be intelligible and compelling to the people who read it or are affected by it. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, it is very good to know that the Lord Chief Justice understood this. This Parliament is not a private theatre using a private language intended to please a few zealous people. It is a legislature, and legislation belongs to citizens, not to a narrow circle of us. Citizens plainly know that it is women who give birth to babies. Babies are not born of euphemisms.
Secondly, I think most people will find efforts to erase “woman” or words relating to women or their biological sex laughable. We do ourselves no credit by using pretentious meaningless phrases, which nobody would use in their own lives. It patronises people who use plain language about known facts. The Bill, with its laudable purpose, is easy to support. How absurd it would be if its language became a boilerplate for drafting subsequent legislation.
Thirdly, it is an unavoidable and uncomfortable truth that when politicians start using words to describe real people as though they were simply objects—to speak of them as though they are “it”—we erode our sensitivity to the people involved. It was always the way of dictatorships and authoritarians. In our case, it is not what we intend. We probably all accept that it is women who have babies. They are the birth mothers, whoever brings the baby up. However, in this kind of formulation in the Bill, the women and their specific biology become devalued—expunging their recognisable human attributes. In this Bill, let us get rid of foolish metaphors, similes and ill-crafted figures of speech and replace them with everyday English. Our laws and words must never treat people as non-human things.
Finally, like many other noble Lords, I have read the Commons debate and the Minister’s letter to us. I listened carefully to what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said today. I am sorry to say that the Government have been inaccurate in what they have told us. There was no new legislative edict from Jack Straw, with whom I worked. I will bet no one has even talked to him. He wanted gender-neutral words where possible. There is no need for a word such as “chairman” and it is sensible to use “police officer” or “firefighter” or terms which cover both sexes and any gender choice. In these cases, there is no need or purpose for gendered language. That is what Jack Straw intended.
However, the truth is that legislation on maternity rights, employment data, healthcare provision and many of the things the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others have spoken of, almost only ever refer to women precisely because there is a specific need and specific purpose. This is so that any normal person can read and understand the legislation.
I appeal to the Minister to be truthful about this. Do not hide in the thickets of the Explanatory Notes. Our excellent Library has provided copious evidence in legislation—no metaphors, no similes, no foolish figures of speech. We are not living in a regime which requires or writes its laws and explanations to obscure and confuse its citizens. Our sole aim here is to ensure that senior women politicians have maternity rights, just like other women. Many other rights should have been in the Bill as well, but it at least does that. It does so for their own well-being and that of their babies. It is that simple.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, because that was a brilliant speech. I have found the speeches today humbling, articulate and wonderful, and noble Lords will know that I do not often start my speeches in this manner. I think we have captured that this is not just a matter of words. There is something else going on and I hope that message comes through.
When I was a teenager, my working mother excitedly told me about the Employment Protection Act 1975, which introduced the first maternity leave legislation. She was thrilled that this would give me and my two sisters choices about work and change everything for future generations of women. In school, my radical English teacher enthusiastically showed me trade union and campaigning leaflets. She proclaimed that maternity leave was a key step for women’s equal employment rights. Her enthusiasm for political change was infectious and I have to confess that I caught the bug. We have to remember that, until then, every woman knew she could get sacked for getting pregnant and faced open discrimination, often related to maternity. I suspect that my mother and teacher would be delighted to know that things have improved so much for women that we can now focus on ensuring that women at the top of government will not be expected to resign because of pregnancy and will have six months’ leave on full pay.
As other noble Lords have noted, the Bill is rather narrowly focused on the women in Westminster. I rather wish that Parliament would show such speed and a sense of urgency in tackling the ludicrously low statutory maternity pay and weak employment protections for ordinary working women on maternity leave. Despite this, I see the Bill as a step forward for women’s rights.
But wait—as we have heard from so many today in the brilliant speeches, can we or the Government claim that it is a gain for women’s rights when the words “women”, “she” or “her” do not appear even once in the Bill? We are assured that this is merely a technical drafting matter. If so, can the Minister organise an urgent review of official drafting guidance so that we can explain that gender-neutral language is not appropriate for sex-specific issues?
The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, said that he did not see a problem with the language used. He implied that it was a bit like saying “chairperson”, but giving birth is not like chairing a meeting. Erasing women from public discourse on maternity is not ahead of the curve; it is regressive and demeaning. It is not people who get pregnant; it is women. It is women who give birth. It is women who benefit from maternity leave and it is women’s rights at work that we want to protect. If we erase the word “women”, the danger is that we erase the struggle for women’s rights that got us here.
I stress that, of course, not all women want to be mothers. Not all women can be mothers or are even good mothers. In my opinion, child rearing is well and truly not a mother’s natural job, but the words “woman” and “mother” have specific meaning. It horrifies me that it has become so contentious to say so. I have been gratified in this debate by how supportive people have been of the amendment. If anything shows that this House is far removed from the rest of society, it is that most of us would be cancelled if we said these things anywhere else but in this House. There is a toxic, nasty thrust to political life today. I would like to acknowledge the courage of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and others for speaking out. This is because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, explained, people here will be labelled TERFs and transphobes and will go on hate lists for speaking out. That is the reality.
I say to the Government, please do not be either naive or disingenuous. These language rows are not technical. As many noble Lords have articulated so passionately, we have to consider the political context. The day after the debate on the Bill in the other place, I watched a male Labour MP on BBC “Politics Live” repeatedly refuse to say whether maternity law should refer to the pregnant “person” or “woman”. Why was it so hard for him to say that? I am not making a party-political point; we see this across the political spectrum.
These new language codes and norms are mandating us to adopt doublespeak. Why do I need to describe myself as “cis woman”? I am a woman; that is it—enough. I am not a uterus holder, nor a person with a vagina nor a chestfeeder. These are linguistic abominations, but they are not harmless. Ultimately, these body part descriptions demean women and are a linguistic assault on the notion that biological sex exists at all. There are consequences of this. For example, in medical challenges specific to biological females, how can healthcare workers discuss the risks of mastitis infection if they have to replace “breast” with “chest”?
We can see how language is being weaponised in other areas deemed technical. You cannot get more technical than the census. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, noted, there is now a huge furore about the politicised wording of the questions. The census is a hugely important inquiry to gather factual data and accurate statistics. Dr Debbie Hayton, a transgender woman, teacher and trade union officer, rightly points out that
“the gender-identity lobby has been working hard to obfuscate the issue by mangling sex with gender identity”.
This place is not a students’ union. On too many campuses, mangling and obfuscating language and linguistic policing are often used to undermine academic freedom and to smear and damage the reputation of feminist academics. Noble Lords should check out the new website, GC Academia Network, to read some horrifying tales. In some ways, we might expect this to go on in a students’ union, but this Parliament should not be like student politics or, much worse, even consider removing the word “woman” from this maternity Bill. We in this House—and even more so in the other place—are answerable to millions of women, men and transgender people—that is, transgender people as distinct from transactivist lobbyists. Those millions would expect, in plain language, that legislation expanding maternity leave would benefit women’s equality. I suspect that those millions of citizens would be horrified to think that any part of our legislative body was in thrall to the small—if loud—lobbying organisations which, make no mistake, are using language as a battering ram to march through the institutions and to eradicate the crucial distinction between biological sex and subjectively-defined gender identity, and which bully and intimidate anyone who refuses to repeat the mandated correct terminology.
I urge the Minister not to let the absence of one key word betray the embryonic gains of the 1975 maternity leave legislation and the hopes of my mother, my teacher and my teenage self. It would mean something for women’s freedom. Do not betray us now.
My Lords, I too support this Bill, even though it does not go far enough in giving Ministers who are parents the same rights that other workers have now come to expect. As others have already said, these include adoption leave, sick leave and shared parental leave. The last is particularly important and affects any Minister who becomes a parent and who is still missing out on the rights to share in the care of their new baby with their partner. I hope the Minister will remedy this urgently.
There is one other parental benefit that has not yet been mentioned—statutory parental bereavement pay and leave. I worked with the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for a number of years to win this right for parents, but it is omitted from this legislation for Ministers. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is added to the other forms of parental allowance and leave for future discussion. One hopes that it is never needed but it is vital to have it in place to cover such awful circumstances.
My former colleagues, Jo Swinson and Jenny Willott, both had their first babies while they were Ministers. No arrangements were made for them. They had to cover for each other without maternity pay at exactly the time when they were working in government for better rights for women and parents in the workplace.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece about the lack of equality impact assessments. We need to remedy this and to reflect on why, as a society, we have moved over the years to gender-neutral language. The gender-neutral language in this Bill is inclusive. Changing it, as many speakers have asked, would make it exclusive—perhaps not to many, but to some people for whom it matters a great deal. No one is trying to erase women but rather to accept that, over recent years, there have been advances in medicine. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for referring to trans men in Brighton. We also have to remember that non-binary and intersex people who were born women would be excluded. Both equality law and clinical care have kept pace with them and their circumstances. Medical care, in particular, has adapted in order to provide the best possible care for them in rare and difficult circumstances. That is why I would gently correct the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in her reporting of the Brighton hospital trust introducing “chestfeeding” and “pregnant people” and removing “breastfeeding” and “women” from its documentation. It is not. Snopes, that excellent debunker of myths, explains this carefully:
“A maternity department at a U.K. hospital announced in February 2021 that it was expanding terms it used in maternity care to include, for example, ‘chestfeeding’ and ‘pregnant people’, in order to be more inclusive of trans and nonbinary patients … To be clear, the NHS said that such language—like referencing ‘pregnant women’ and ‘breastfeed’—will not change for those who identify as such … Adding terms like ‘chestfeeding’ and ‘birthing parent’ was not intended to take away from women-oriented language already in use. Rather, the move was meant to be additional support that offers more inclusion for trans and nonbinary individuals.”
I was also moved by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. Like her, I am disabled and have been on the receiving end of some pretty despicable hate crimes and trolling. Just like her, I am concerned that the trolls will descend on me this evening, but they will be those from the other side of her argument. However, that is nothing as to the daily abuse that trans and non-binary people suffer.
Over the years, your Lordships’ House has learned how to disagree well. In this sensitive debate, I hope that people who are not here with us in the Chamber will choose to watch and listen to those on both sides of the argument. I have heard from trans men that, even though there are currently no trans Members in either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, they think it is important that language used in legislation remains inclusive. Using the word “woman” excludes trans men and therefore removes their rights.
Finally, we must focus on the specific nature and the urgency of this Bill. I hope that the Minister can reassure the House not only that the Bill will proceed but that all Ministers who are new parents will benefit from the same parental rights as workers across the country.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Noakes for her determined and timely action in flagging up the wording in this Bill. I thank the Minister for his sensitive and careful acceptance of the comments that several noble Lords have brought to his attention on the use of the word “person”, as opposed to “female”. As other noble Lords have noted prolifically in this important debate, the drafting of the Bill has eliminated females from the very act that only a female can carry out.
As a former Member of Parliament, of the European Parliament and of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I have fought all my political life to bring females in to all aspects of politics and in to all circles of political power and responsibility at all levels of society. As a former director of the world’s largest children’s charity, a senior consultant to another six or seven of the world’s largest NGOs serving children, and a former World Health Organization ambassador, I know well that the child to be trafficked, abused, enslaved or sold is the one who has been successfully detached from its mother. In this Bill, this detachment begins before conception.
The knowledge that, both before and after birth, a mother is needed for the foetus to be safely developed in the womb and securely delivered with a safe birth, underpins the Children Act and all child’s rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which were framed and intensively discussed, debated and agreed by our former, late, much lamented and loved colleague Baroness Faithfull, whose work for children seemed eternally enshrined in British law. This Bill betrays her heritage, as much as it betrays that of Professor Bowlby, with his attachment theory for babies and children throughout their beginnings.
This is something that successive British Governments have always known about and supported. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed in 1976 and ratified by the UK in the same year, states that:
“The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that: The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society”— that comes out of the European Convention on Human Rights, of course—
“particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children. Marriage must be entered into with the free consent of the intending spouses. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth.”
The Government are right to put this Bill forward because, as Article 10 goes on to say:
“During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.”
Nothing could be more suitable than that. However, we also have CEDAW, ratified by the UK in 1986 to
“provide special protection to women during pregnancy in types of work proved to be harmful to them”, and to
“ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”
Nothing could be more appropriate for this Bill, which our Government have correctly put forward, save that both those great statements mention women—mothers, females, not persons. In the dictionary, “person” means man, woman or child.
Today this House is talking about a female activity. I find it astounding that half a million years of human knowledge, custom and practice is cast aside for the sake of today’s unwillingness to recognise reality; to discard “mother”, “female”, “woman” in favour of a mythical being, the neutral “person”, the very neutrality of the word negating females. Those successfully impregnated by males for conception are females. Maternity is not a male activity, nor can it be hijacked by a change of wording. While wishful at all times of supporting mothers at any stage of their responsibilities, I cannot sit silent while we wipe the female out of a piece of maternity legislation which is designed for her.
Of course, we want our laws to be understandable to the ordinary person. That means everyone who votes and those who are not yet old enough to do so. One of our most wonderful authors, Shakespeare, has a lot to say about motherhood and mothering. He refers to breastfeeding several times, for example in “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth” and “The Winter’s Tale”, in which he presents the heavily pregnant Queen Hermione. In “Pericles”, Queen Thaisa vividly gives birth to a princess during a storm at sea. I will give an example, from Shakespeare, of what happens when you lose the word “mother” or “female” and replace it with “person”. It makes a very interesting distinction. This is from Sonnet III:
“Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;”
Now let me use the wording of the Bill:
“Thou art thy person’s glass and it in thee
Calls back”— what can it call back? It cannot be “the lovely April of its prime”. I suggest we can only offer that it calls back “the flat and gloomy February of our time”.
If, despite his kind words, the Minister is unable to offer any real sweetness to salve our strong concerns, would he be willing to accept a full debate on language used in legislative drafting, in other governmental organisations and institutions, and in those which are sustained by funding from the Government, such as schools? The concerns of this House today about language cannot be easily ameliorated, as the present debate so clearly shows. I deeply and profoundly regret the drafting and the misgendering of women in the Bill.
My Lords, it is fascinating how such a small Bill has demonstrated the ability of the House of Lords to rise to the occasion and scrutinise every word and line. I welcome the Minister’s assurance that he was listening carefully to the debate. His recent letter gave some reassurance, but not enough. It did not deal with what most of the speakers today regard as a misinterpretation of the guidance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, started this debate with a bang. She used a colloquial term, “garbage”, to describe the failure of the Bill to recognise the role of women in motherhood, and she was right. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, reminded the House, we are privileged to have this debate in a non-toxic atmosphere, without being accused of transphobia. That would be ironic because, as he and many other noble Lords said, most of us have spent our adult lives fighting against homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and Section 28. We do not need to be taught lessons on tolerance and being anti-discriminatory. No wonder there are mixed messages from the Government. The gender equality office takes advice from an organisation called Gendered Intelligence and carries its logo on its letterhead.
A number of noble Lords were right when they said that the Bill is less than perfect. In her moving contribution, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, demonstrated what it was like to experience discrimination; we felt for her. My noble friend Lord Winston showed how women struggle to achieve motherhood. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, took the House through the legal minefield to arrive at the conclusion of women in the role of motherhood. As I have said, the Bill is too narrow, and I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the Government will look at the wider issues.
We do not normally vote on regret Motions in this House, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, indicated that a vote was not her intention. This is helpful, because it gives the Minister the opportunity to consider the overwhelming feelings of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Hoey, and a whole range of speakers from all the Benches demonstrated their support for the amendments. I know the Minister is in a listening mode; he has agreed to a further meeting with Peers, which I hope will enable him to reconsider his response to the amendment in Committee.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was wrong, I feel, when she said that if we used the word “women,” it would discriminate against trans men, as was demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. It is ironic that the recent decision by the Office for National Statistics to cave in to the demands to remove sex from the forthcoming census, and allow gender identification instead, will actually work against ensuring that services for transgender people will be provided.
I end my contribution by thanking the House for having this debate in a rational logical way, where Members did not worry about which party they would normally, if you like, support but looked at the issue carefully and rationally. The overwhelming majority of people who contributed to this debate saw the need for amendments. I hope that, in making his response, the Minister will recognise this strength of feeling.
There has been striking unanimity during this debate, and at the end of a long list of speakers certain themes have emerged, such as language and whether it is better to use the word “person” or “woman”. In my view, it is women who give birth, so I favour the use of the word “woman”. But I want to be clear that I am not opposed to other gender-specific areas.
Other issues were raised, and it became evident that the Bill is seen to be narrow in focus and needs to be widened. Therefore, there is an opportunity for the Minister, when he comes back later this week, to bring forward amendments to widen the scope of this Bill.
Notwithstanding that, I support this Bill, because the Government are addressing the realities of wider society. Many people in senior responsible positions are women, and the Government are helping to ensure public life is being made more accessible. It is a fundamental right to take time off to have a baby, and it is important there is financial protection to celebrate motherhood.
I support the general thrust of the legislation as a first step towards addressing working conditions for women in Parliament. It does, however, miss an opportunity to address pay and working conditions for ordinary women who earn low incomes and are forced to work long hours in advance of pregnancy and, often, to return to work a short period of time after the birth, endangering their health and preventing a proper early bonding relationship with their child. That issue requires urgent attention. As my noble friend Lord Hain said, in Covid conditions such situations become that bit more acute. So I would like to hear from the Minister how he and the Government intend to address these issues for all working women who face motherhood.
Because Ministers and their opposition numbers are appointed, there is not security of tenure in the employment, and they should be financially protected, and theirs jobs secure, during their pregnancy leave. The provisions in the Bill mean that Ministers and those holding principal opposition offices will not have to resign, and they create a discretionary power for the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition in the relevant House to grant certain office holders six months’ maternity leave. But it is important that this is extended to women MPs and MPs on paternity leave, shared parental leave and adoption leave—to widen the scope and remit of provisions of this Bill. I look forward to the Minister addressing these issues.
Both the Minister and Penny Mordaunt, who introduced the Bill in the other place, said the Government would bring forward proposals to address outstanding parental leave issues. When will this happen? What will be the extent and remit of such proposals? Will they be subject to legislative provision? Reference has been made to the fact that discussions have taken place regarding this matter. With whom, and for how long, have they been going on? Do they involve the Lords? Do they include provisions for maternity leave entitlement or for those seeking to adopt or those on shared parental leave? Will the new provisions include the need for the Government to strengthen the employment rights of pregnant women and new parents across the UK? Will it also include redundancy protection for pregnant women and new mothers?
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to bereavement leave. I think that is a particularly important issue, and maybe the Minister could advise us on that. There is also the need to focus on: the wholly inadequate levels of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay; the lack of employment protection for women on maternity leave; and the low level of take-up of parental leave by fathers because many cannot afford to take it.
I am happy to support the provisions in this Bill, as far as it goes. But I believe the remit and the strength of this Bill will be in the Minister bringing forward government amendments to widen the scope of the Bill to ensure it covers a wider spectrum of women.
My Lords, first and foremost, I am sure all Members of your Lordships’ House will want to join me in offering our best wishes to the Members of Parliament for Fareham, Enfield North and Walthamstow. As we all now know, Suella Braverman, Feryal Clark and Stella Creasy are expecting babies in a few weeks’ time. Access to appropriate maternity leave is equally important for all three.
There has been a tendency for successive Governments to inflate the importance of Ministers at the expense of Parliament, and this Government are certainly not immune. But under our constitution, Ministers are accountable to MPs, who are themselves accountable to constituents—not all the other way around. It follows that it is vital for MPs and their constituents to be effectively reinforced for parental leave that they are encouraged to take.
It happens that the Member for Fareham is to be fully supported in her ministerial role, throughout the six months’ leave, by this Bill. What about her MP role? I am sure her constituency office staff would do an excellent job with her casework, and she would, presumably, be able to nominate a proxy to vote for her.
However, the electors of Fareham will be without a parliamentary voice for the period of leave, and that will also be true for the people of Enfield and Walthamstow. When I was shadow Leader of the House of Commons for the Liberal Democrats, I worked with Robin Cook and Sir George Young—now the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham—to seek ways to strengthen the role of Members who did not seek ministerial advancement. That led, among other things, to improved status and influence for committee chairs.
But the Bill provides the Government an opportunity to drive a further wedge between the treatment of Ministers and MPs. That cannot continue indefinitely. As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire pointed out, the gestation of this narrow Bill has been much longer than a pregnancy. It is disappointing that the opportunity to develop a much wider reform has not been taken. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, pointed out, with her memories of the inconceivable situation that arose in 1976, it is curious that this must be emergency legislation after decades of inadequate gestation.
There are other ways in which this ad personam Bill must clearly be followed by more comprehensive legislation, as my noble friends have been emphasising in this debate. There are serious inequalities to be addressed both inside Parliament and beyond. Better provision for all forms of parental leave has been a theme right through the debate. For all MPs would be a good start, but paternity, adoption, shared parental and child bereavement leave all need to be addressed urgently, not just for MPs but more widely. In that context, I was very moved by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, whose professional evidence we all take so seriously.
The MP’s life is exceptionally demanding. I knew that, but it has become even more so since I was a Member. My wife was expecting when I defended a tiny majority in October 1974, only to lose it by a few hundred votes. In retrospect, we both agreed that this was a blessing in disguise, when the first months of 1975 were dominated by the arrival of our new son, to join a very lively two-year-old daughter. I do not think that I would have been able to give good service to my constituents then. If the constituents of Fareham, Enfield and Walthamstow—and many others in future—are not to be discriminated against, the Bill is addressing only a relatively minor problem. Ministerial duties can be undertaken by others, with a huge back-up of civil servants, but not so parliamentary duties.
I have no doubt that the Minister will have at his fingertips comparable maternity allowance provision, not just as recommended for MPs’ staff but for all the employees of the two Houses of Parliament, to set beside what we are considering simply for Ministers and a few others. If he does not, I am sure that in his usual way he will have the courtesy to let us see something to compare before the further stages of the Bill. Meanwhile, as all my colleagues have urged, and other Members right across the House, if the Government mean what they say about the need for generous parental leave, then they cannot give up on the process to provide it throughout the country once the Bill is passed. I hope that it will be passed—but words are significant, especially in legislation and especially in this place. Of course the semantic concerns expressed on all sides are important, and I do not envy the Minister’s job in squaring the circle to achieve plain speaking and accessible language in the context of the Bill, as he has been asked to do. Personally, my bafflement is very simple: I do not really understand how “women” is legislatively unacceptable but “maternity” can be used throughout the Bill from its Title onwards. The dictionary definitions seem equally restrictive.
Above all, we note the promise from the Paymaster-General, Penny Mordaunt. In the Commons Second Reading, on
“I think we should be bringing this back to the House before the summer recess in order to address those other issues.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/21; col. 559.]
As the noble Baroness has just said, a lot of us are looking for that—and the Paymaster-General was referring to legislation, not just consultation. That sounds to me like an expectation of inclusion in an early summer Queen’s Speech. On behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I ask the Minister to reiterate that promise. Our support for the Bill is not unconditional; we support it but we hope that it leads to the much greater, more comprehensive improvements to all parental leave which we are looking for. It would be totally unacceptable for Parliament to give special maternity entitlement to Ministers—and in Clause 4, to a small selection of Labour officeholders—without that firm commitment to make progress for wider parental leave to both MPs and the nation which they serve.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill. A maternity Bill to support parliamentarians has been too long in coming forward, and I add my best wishes to the Attorney-General, whose pregnancy has finally spurred the Government into action. My noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, who has spent so much of her exemplary career working to improve women’s rights, said in her speech that it is hard to believe that it has taken so long for us to have come this far.
Repeatedly, the Government have insisted that reforming maternity rights would take time, so it is disappointing that the Bill is being rushed through with such a narrow remit. I have listened carefully to the debate today, and the many important contributions as to how this Bill could be significantly improved. The Minister stated in his opening remarks that this is just the beginning of the journey of reform, so I hope that as well as listening he has heard, and that the Government will act on the well-needed improvements without delay. A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath in his passionate speech in support of women, and my noble friend Lord Winston, speaking from the heart about his extensive experience, have talked about the language used in the Bill, and particularly the use of “person”. As has been pointed out, this is at odds with other legislation covering maternity rights and protection, including the Equality Act 2010, which uses “her” and “woman” specifically. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, clearly explained why she is concerned about this in introducing her regret amendment. In his letter to noble Lords on this issue, and in his introduction, the Minister explained that the wording reflects modern drafting convention and guidance and looked forward to discussing it further at this Second Reading. My noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley was particularly informed on this issue, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s more detailed response in his closing speech.
There has been much discussion of the number of omissions in the Bill as it stands. As I know the Minister recognises, the proposals do not include any provision for paternity leave entitlement, premature baby leave, those seeking to adopt, or those on shared parental leave. It is a shame that the Government have not given more detailed consideration to a Bill which has such importance to women parliamentarians, and which has the potential to encourage more young women to take up a parliamentary career. With more thought and proper consultation, the Bill could have been so much better.
We should be encouraging more fathers to take up paternity and shared parental leave. The Bill sends out the wrong message by failing to make those provisions, and as drafted helps only a small number of women. I was especially interested to hear from my noble friend Lady Hayman about her experience of having a baby as a Member of Parliament in the 1970s, and how dispiriting it is that there has been so little real progress since then. Backbench MPs are able to take maternity leave, as we know, but have no guarantee that their constituency responsibilities will be covered in their absence. Following the debates on the Bill in the other place, IPSA published a consultation on funding MP parental leave and allowing MPs on parental leave to hire new staff to cover their constituency duties. The consultation closes shortly, and I hope that the Government will take swift action to bring in this much-needed support for all Members of Parliament. As my noble friend Lady Gale mentioned, it is concerning that no equalities impact assessment has been published. An EIA might have highlighted the Bill’s many deficiencies and brought a focus on wider paternity rights issues. Can the Minister assure us that the promised improved Bill will include an EIA?
As other noble Lords have done, I now draw the Minister’s attention to maternity leave pay. The Bill effectively provides for salaried Ministers and opposition officeholders to receive six months paid maternity leave. The Explanatory Notes explain that this is comparable to maternity pay in the Civil Service and Armed Forces. However, as has been pointed out, this is far more generous than the statutory rate of maternity pay and maternity allowance, which can leave many women in financial poverty. The Government need to address this—babies are very expensive.
Noble Lords have talked about the fact that the speed with which the Government are acting to make sure that the Attorney-General can rightly take maternity leave is in stark contrast to their failure to support pregnant women, who have faced discrimination and hardship throughout the pandemic. The Minister will no doubt be aware of the recently published report by the Women and Equalities Committee on the gendered economic impact of Covid-19. It specifically highlights the position of pregnant women who have been incorrectly put on statutory sick pay instead of maternity pay and those who have been denied furlough, even though they were entitled to it, because they were pregnant.
It is disappointing that the Government are yet to act on their commitment in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech to strengthen the legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents and introduce leave for neonatal care. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will act on the committee’s recommendations? Although it may be outside the noble Lord’s remit, will he provide an update on the Employment Bill, which could include provisions on such things as miscarriage leave, and leave for parents with a sick child?
It is clear from today’s debate that there is much work to be done to improve the Bill, but also that the proposals have strong cross-party support and a commitment to see improved legislation as soon as possible. It is vital that the areas that have been omitted and other issues are addressed. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, just said, when the Bill was debated in the other place, the Minister said that we should bring this back to the House before the Summer Recess to address those other issues. The Minister himself has referred to an update. Will he confirm that the Government’s intention is indeed to bring the Bill back before the Summer Recess? On the understanding that better legislation will be achieved by cross-party working, will he confirm that the Government are committed to this so that we can properly reform the narrow Bill before us today?
My Lords, it is a privilege to respond to the debate, which I have listened to intently and with deep consideration for what everybody has said. If I may be allowed a personal comment, I too was moved by what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, because the reason there were seven years between my late brother and me was that my mother was one of the women to whom he referred and, of course, never forgot that. In my life, I have tried to follow the example of that remarkable woman. Part of that example was always that you should listen to the other person and that bullying and hatred have no place in personal life or public life. I echo very strongly what the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said on that in her intervention. No one should have fear in expressing any view. We have heard contrary views in this debate—although there has been an overwhelming voice on one side, we have heard countervailing voices—and I assure the House that I respect all those.
I thank everybody who has taken part. The contributions have been insightful if, from the Government’s point of view, sometimes challenging. I have rarely heard the House so unanimous, or near unanimous, in its expression of concern on the two main points that have come out of the debate: first, what we do next in broadening the work, which I spoke about in opening; and, secondly, the issue of language, on which many have spoken.
Before I come to that, I shall answer some of the other points raised in the debate. We could begin on one point on which I think we are all agreed: although the Bill is specific and limited, it is a significant reforming measure for women and points the way to wider reform. I welcome that that has been recognised by most of those who spoke. The Bill makes an important and long-overdue change to existing law by for the first time enabling senior Ministers to take paid maternity leave. The prior situation—that such a woman had to resign—was unacceptable and, frankly, shameful in the 21st century.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for her heartfelt contribution at the outset of the debate. The very fact that she has tabled an amendment demonstrates her feeling on the subject. If she and other noble Lords will permit, I will address some of the other concerns first and come to the language later in this speech.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her support for the Bill. She rightly highlighted the past injustice of women having to make a choice between having children and pursuing a career. That is entirely wrong. It is why the Bill and what I hope will follow are so important. The Government acknowledge that the Bill does not resolve wider issues, and we will present a report to Parliament. I shall say more about that later, setting out considerations and proposals.
I turn to some other points raised in the course of the debate. On the constitutional aspects of the Bill, particularly the royal prerogative and how the Bill operates in that space, several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Lord Hain and Lord Pannick, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hussein-Ece, Lady Grey-Thompson, Lady Jones and Lady Hayman, asked why the Bill does not grant a right to maternity leave and why it remains within the Prime Minister’s discretion to appoint a Minister as a Minister on leave. As my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General said in the other place during the Bill’s passage, Ministers are not employees and therefore do not enjoy employment rights. They are officeholders appointed by the sovereign on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day. The Bill is careful to ensure that the arrangements put in place to allow Ministers to take maternity leave do not interfere with that prerogative in relation to the appointment of Ministers.
Noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Grey-Thompson, and many others, said that while the Bill is welcome, it does not go far enough. I agree, as I said in my opening speech and just now. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the Bill does not resolve wider issues such as ministerial adoption and parental leave, absences for sickness and other measures—we heard about some in the debate—or unpaid roles and that we should proceed to consider them too. I will come to that in more detail later.
Noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, also raised maternity provision for Members of the other place. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work as part of the APPG on Women in Parliament, which advocated paid cover for Ministers in 2014. In respect of Members of Parliament, it is a matter for IPSA, which is entirely independent of the Government, and for Parliament itself. I note and welcome the fact that IPSA has launched a consultation on funding for MP parental leave cover and I encourage all those with an interest to make their views known to IPSA.
Others raised wider issues affecting pregnant women across the country. That was the gravamen of the wind-up speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, whom I welcome to her position on the Front Bench opposite. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is already unlawful, but the Government have recognised that pregnant women and new mothers continue to face challenges in the workplace. They have consulted on this issue previously and published their response in the summer of 2019. We are looking to bring forward reforms to the current statutory framework, as was committed to in our manifesto. It will provide security for expecting and new mothers, and flexibility for employers.
I thank noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Bourne, for their advocacy on behalf of unpaid Ministers in your Lordships’ House. I recognise that this is an issue, and, understandably, a number of noble Lords feel strongly about it. I am happy to confirm that the Written Ministerial Statement laid by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister specifically envisages the use of unpaid roles as being within the scope of further work that the Government have committed to, following the Bill. The Government will present a report to Parliament setting out considerations on this matter, alongside the other matters that I have explained. I paid careful attention to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Bourne and others, and I hope to be able to update my noble friend and the House on the progress of that work by the Summer Recess, as was stated by my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General in the other place.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, who made a powerful speech, and others for their points on equalities impact assessments. It is absolutely right that the Government should give proper consideration to the equalities impacts of a policy underlying any legislation. Although the provisions of this Bill are of narrow scope, they apply to all ministerial offices and the opposition officeholders who are paid under the ministerial salary legislation to allow for maternity leave. This means that, for those women who are Ministers or are considering accepting appointment to ministerial office, there is now less of an impediment or barrier to doing so when considering starting a family at the same time. This improves equality and removes an injustice. It is part of the wider work that I have referred to before, which will look at, among other things, parental leave, adoption leave and the position of people in public life who are not Ministers. The Government have undertaken that, as part of that, they will take into account the equalities issues. The starting point will be to consider the impacts of the current legislation, as well as work from relevant Select Committees.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, raised the Law Officers Act 1997. He is of course right to say that, by virtue of that Act, which he helped steward through Parliament, the functions of the Attorney-General can be exercised by the Solicitor-General. That provides important flexibility on a day-to-day basis. However, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will recognise that that is not a solution for a planned and ongoing leave of absence.
In addition, the office of Attorney-General, as chief law officer for England and Wales and chief legal adviser to the Crown, is an important part of our constitution. Advice on the most serious and sensitive issues is provided to the Cabinet by the Attorney-General, who attends Cabinet. In those circumstances, it is not about the possibility of the Solicitor-General deputising but about ensuring that there is clarity about who discharges the role of Attorney-General.
I would now like to address the concerns raised in the other place and so strongly and repeatedly in this House today regarding the language used in this legislation. In the debate, almost all noble Lords raised the fact that the Bill refers to “persons”, rather than “women”, who are pregnant. What others see as neutral language, many of your Lordships have perceived as rejecting the special role of women in childbirth. Questions have been raised about whether this is the application of extreme gender ideology. It is not. The overriding drafting principle for all legislation is that we must create the legal conditions to deliver the policy intent.
I will address the specific issues directly and hope to be able to give the House some reassurance, but it is important to disentangle the broader issue of non-specific language on the one hand and how it is perceived and operates in the Bill. I submit that few would want to go back to the situation before 2007, when, for example, “he” was regularly used in legislation to embrace women. That, as many have argued, was seen as demeaning. The changes introduced by the then Labour Government and supported by successive Governments of all parties have sought to avoid gender-specific pronouns and usages when drafting legislation. Whatever the concerns expressed in this debate—I heard them and will come to them—I have not heard any call for the wholesale overthrow of the inclusive drafting conventions used since 2007. The Government continue to believe that that change was right.
I will come to the specific context of the language of this Bill. However, the Government do not—this reflects our discussions with the Official Opposition—propose to amend this Bill, for several reasons. First, the specific circumstances of the Attorney-General’s pregnancy mean that there is some urgency to secure Royal Assent to allow her to go on maternity leave. Secondly, in that context, the current drafting achieves its purpose in legal clarity and certainty.
As I said in opening, the Government have committed to return to the House with a report on furthering the reform begun in this Bill, looking into wider issues including adoption and parental leave, sickness and unpaid roles. If that review leads to this Bill being revisited, the way it is now constructed will facilitate further additions for other forms of ministerial leave.
The Bill is legally accurate and will allow women to take maternity leave. To disturb that by amendment now might lead to unfortunate delay or unintended confusion in drafting. I acknowledge, having heard the debate, that this is not a satisfactory position for this House, but we will return to these matters in due course.
Although the drafting of this Bill in the context of maternity has been criticised by many, I repeat that it was neither novel nor intended in any way to denigrate women. I and the Government have heard today the concerns of both Houses on the “erasure of women” from public discourse and legislation. It is not intended to do this. The overriding drafting principle is that we must meet the legal requirements to deliver policy intent. The use of “person” in relation to pregnancy or childbirth matters in legislation is in line with current drafting convention and guidance, but, having heard the debate today, I will make the following points in reassurance.
First, I repeat that it will continue to be this Government’s policy to refer to pregnant women in government publications. That point has been made very strongly by many who spoke. Secondly, the Government have already responded to concerns that this drafting could be misinterpreted, and have updated the Explanatory Notes, which now detail how the Bill is intended to support women and explain the drafting practice.
The Government recognise the continuing strength of feeling on this issue in both this House and the other place. We are clear that the drafting is accurate and effective, but we recognise the concern expressed today that meeting legal requirements in drafting legislation does not mean that there is only one drafting approach available. In addition to committing to make myself available to noble Lords who may wish to discuss this matter further before Committee—I express my gratitude to those noble Lords who have taken the time and engagement so far to enter into discussions with the Government and me—I also state that the Government are open to further discussions on this issue. I will reflect with colleagues whether we can commit to doing more on this wider issue as we approach the later stages of this Bill.
Following my undertakings on this, many noble Lords expressed a wish to see reform go further to resolve wider issues around ministerial parental leave. The Government acknowledge that the Bill does not resolve these wider issues. That is why we have committed to further consideration. These are complex issues which require careful further consideration, taking into account modern working practices and the wider constitutional context. While respecting the independence of IPSA, the Government will present a report to Parliament setting out considerations and proposals.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the Government’s work will consider how the issues are resolved in other contexts, including for MPs, other officeholders, workers and employees, to draw up proposals for how they can be made to work in the context of ministerial office.
I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that as part of this work, the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to consult with the leader of the Opposition on the development of the proposals in advance of publication. The Government will continue the work following passage of this legislation with a view to laying the report before Parliament as soon as is practicable, and will in any event update Parliament before the Summer Recess.
I hope that I have been able to address some of the issues raised by noble Lords, including those raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes and others throughout this debate. I urge her to consider withdrawing her amendment, and repeat my offer to have further engagement between now and the next stages.
The Government agree that Parliament and Government should seek to lead from the front on working practices, providing as much flexibility as possible to officeholders to aid the effective discharge of their duties. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out in his Written Statement on this topic two weeks ago, the Government have undertaken to look into considerations and proposals, both in the round and in detail.
Returning to the essential, this Bill will end the unacceptable situation where a pregnant woman would have to resign from Cabinet to recover from childbirth and care for her new-born child. For this reason and for the reasons outlined above, I again beg to move that the Bill be read a second time, and urge my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have supported my amendment. There have been some wonderful, strong speeches today, far too many for me to refer to individually. The Minister has been left in no doubt as to the strength of feeling on the matters raised by my amendment.
The vast majority of those taking part today supported my amendment, and I have had a number of messages during the course of this debate from other noble Lords offering their support. The Minister has absorbed the fact that many of us who have spoken have risked being targeted by activists as a result. It is not easy to support women nowadays.
We had 34 speakers on the list today, but I am sure that more would have spoken had they been aware of the issues. The plain fact is that the expedited process, coupled with the recess, meant that the majority of the House was not even aware that I had tabled my amendment, let alone seen the content of it, until well after the speakers’ list had closed. That is not good for the health of debate in your Lordships’ House, and I hope that the usual channels will look carefully at this going forward.
The Minister responded to the debate with his customary dignity, but I was disappointed on two counts. First, he did not agree to bring forward Government amendments to Committee on Thursday; I cannot say that I was surprised at that, but I was disappointed. Secondly, he did not agree to ensure that the recent gender-neutral drafting guidance, which has caused this problem, would be reviewed by Ministers and then by Parliament. We can do nothing in this House about revising the drafting guidance, although I am sure that we will be seeking to debate that further in due course, and my noble friend Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne raised that specifically.
So far as the Bill is concerned, we do have Committee on Thursday, and noble Lords across the House will want to speak to amendments which have already been tabled. Very little change to the Bill is required, and it would only add a day or so to the timetable for getting Royal Assent if that course were pursued. I have not given up hope that the Government will work with us, and I look forward to meeting the Minister with other noble Lords later this week.
If the Government will not work with us to amend the Bill—as I said, I hope they will—there is another potential obstacle to our ability to change the Bill in your Lordships’ House, namely the question of whether any vote would be whipped by our Front Benches. I cannot speak for other parties, but my party, in the other place, was given a free vote on this Bill, which is right and proper for an issue such as this. I very much hope that our Chief Whip will see the good sense of this on Thursday. With that, I will not seek the opinion of the House today and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.