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.