It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Tracey Crouch on securing the debate and on her excellent introduction. As David Linden just said, it has been a very good and well-informed debate, and it has struck the right tone. Perhaps we should take that into other arenas.
The hon. Lady raised three main issues. She referred to the important work of the Centre for Social Justice and mentioned interesting survey statistics—for example, that seven out of 10 fathers said they felt like a spare part, and that six out of 10 had no conversations with their midwife. I think a lot of us would recognise that territory. I remember being on holiday with my wife and her going up to talk to a woman I had never seen before, who turned out to be her midwife. That shows how difficult it is to engage both parents. I know that the Government are pushing for greater consistency, with the same midwife throughout the journey, but the fact that we have 3,500 midwife vacancies makes that a challenge.
The hon. Lady raised the subject of loneliness, too. I thank her for her work to introduce the Government’s loneliness strategy in 2018, building on the Jo Cox Commission, which is led by my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy. That is a hugely important part of Jo’s legacy, and I am sure that Members across the House recognise the excellent contribution that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford has made to drawing attention to that issue. There are, of course, many triggers for loneliness, one of which is being a new parent.
The hon. Lady also raised the important role that children’s centres can play. Several Members raised concerns about whether they are well enough used. Cuts of 60% to local government funding in recent years have led to the closure of 1,000 children’s centres, which provide support to both mothers and fathers in those early years. There is no doubt that that has had an impact.
The hon. Lady is right that we have a long way to go to reach true equality, with shared parenting. Shared parental leave legislation, which has been about since 2015, enables employed couples to split 50 weeks’ time off work after the birth of their child. The Government originally estimated that 8% of parents would take up the option of shared leave. However, disappointingly, take-up at the moment is only about 1% or 2%. A recent freedom of information request showed that take-up is particularly low among new parents, with only eight out of every 1,000 eligible people taking up the option. Some 8,700 new parents took up shared leave in 2016-17, and that increased by only 500 the following year.
The Women and Equalities Committee highlighted a number of problems with shared parental leave, including the complexity of the system, low uptake and low pay, and fathers’ fears about taking leave because of its perceived negative effect on their careers. There is a cultural issue here, so will the Minister say what can be done to address that?
Shared parental leave does not extend to self-employed parents. At present, self-employed mothers are entitled to statutory maternity pay of £140 per week, but they must take all that in one go and they risk losing their payments if they undertake work outside their 10 allotted “keeping in touch” days. Self-employed fathers do not have access to that at all. I hope that hon. Members will support the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Extension) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin, which would enable self-employed parents to split parental leave and pay between them. Given that the ranks of the self-employed seem to increase every year, will the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to legislate in this area?
Better pay and the option of part-time take-up of shared parental leave would improve access to leave for fathers, particularly those from lower-income groups. There is strong evidence of the effectiveness of non-transferable paternal leave as a lever for encouraging shared care and reducing the gender pay gap. We know that fathers want to play an active role in their children’s lives and families want to spend more time together with a new baby. That is why, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East said, we made a manifesto commitment to double paid paternity leave to four weeks. Fathers are parents too and they deserve to spend as much time as possible with their family.
Paul Masterton gave a personal and touching account of his own experiences and set out well how fathers are almost removed from the scene shortly after birth, which is an experience that most of us who have been through that will recognise. Unfortunately, I think that sets a tone for the rest of the early years, if not the whole life.
Andrew Selous drew an interesting and important link between income and antenatal group attendance. He is right that fathers are not included as much as they could be in many of the inspection frameworks. His central point—this is something that we see across a lot of the NHS—is that the best practice is only in pockets, and does not always disseminate out into the whole of the system.
Fiona Bruce spoke about the importance of families and said that there can sometimes be a cycle of negative experiences throughout the generations.
Douglas Ross gave us the good news about his impending fatherhood, and he raised an important issue about the proximity of maternity services. That does not just relate to the reorganisation of services, as in his case; it is a sad fact that last year, about half of all maternity units had to close their doors temporarily at some point, which meant that someone who was in the process of labour would have to find somewhere else pretty quickly, which can be distressing and inconvenient.
Ben Bradley gave a thoughtful and personal account of his experiences of fatherhood; we will all recognise many of things he described. He is right that parenthood is expensive, and that can add to the strain that young families experience. He made an important point about the silo-working that we often see across public sector agencies—a situation that we all want improved.
Finally, Eddie Hughes gave some contrasting examples of approaches to flexibility in the workplace and spoke of some of the cultural issues that we have already discussed. There is a need for a more consistent approach across workplaces.
As a father myself, I would like to spend more time with my children—or I certainly did until they became truculent teenagers; things got a little less pleasant then. Seriously, every parent wants to play as much of a role as they can in creating a safe, loving and stable environment for their children, so that they grow up into happy and healthy adults. We know that long working hours and the inflexible working approaches of some organisations make shared parenting duties a challenge. If we are to support men in taking a greater role in the family unit, we need to support men and women having a real and meaningful choice about how they organise their lives; that means family-friendly employment, applied equally to both parents.
It is a well-known fact that the gender pay gap is still here in 2019. The impact of women’s being more likely to be in part-time, low-paid or non-paid caring roles has implications for fathers in the workplace. We committed to tackling the gender pay gap and have pledged that in addition to reporting gender pay gap figures, companies will be required to demonstrate how they plan to close their gender pay gap, by producing action plans and taking steps to address the factors that contribute to the pay gap. That will include tackling unequal pay and discrimination and improving access to flexible working and take-up of shared parental leave, to ensure that all employees have a better work-life balance.
I note with interest the proposal from the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford for a dad test, which would be applied to the relevant commissioning and inspection frameworks for the perinatal period. We know that this country offers some of the best neonatal care in the world, along with some exemplary psychological and bereavement services. However, as we have already touched on, there is an unacceptable variability across the country. As many as 41% of neonatal units have no access to a trained mental health worker. As has been highlighted in the past few years in our debates about baby loss, that has been an unfortunate experience for some constituents, while others have had access to the very best services. I am sure that we want greater consistency across the board.
I welcome the commitment in the NHS long-term plan to enhanced support for perinatal mental health services, including assessment and signposting to professional supports for fathers and partners. The question—which is the same for a lot of the long-term plan—is, are the resources and staff there to deliver on those important aims?
In conclusion, we are on a journey—we are not there yet—towards a greater understanding and facilitation of the father’s role. Every day of a child’s early years is hugely important. The more we can do to encourage more and better-quality support during those earlier years, the better.