Consideration of Lords amendments
Payment of maternity allowance: Ministerial office
My noble Friend Lord True said on Second Reading in the House of Lords that, although “specific and limited” in its aims, this Bill is a significant reforming measure for women and points the way to wider reform. It will make an important and long overdue change to existing law by enabling Ministers and Opposition spokesmen for the first time to take paid maternity leave from their job for an extended period. It ends the unacceptable situation where a Minister would have to resign from Cabinet or their post to recover from childbirth and to care for their newborn child. Members in the House of Lords have exercised their role as the reviewing House and have decided to return the Bill to this House with amendments and the Government are content to accept those amendments in the House today.
The Lords amendments make a number of changes to the drafting in clauses 1 to 3 of the Bill, substituting the word “person” with the words “mother” or “expectant mother” where appropriate. These amendments tabled by my noble Friend Lord Lucas were supported by the Government in the House of Lords in recognition of the strength of feeling on this issue displayed in both Houses. The Bill, as originally drafted, was in line with the long-standing convention to use gender-neutral drafting where doing so is necessary to achieve the full policy intent. The use of the word “person” in this Bill as originally drafted achieved both those aims.
The amendments that the Government are accepting today to substitute “mother” or “expectant mother” where appropriate for “persons” in clauses 1 to 3, although grammatically challenging in places, do not affect the operation of the Bill and achieve the twin aims of being legally accurate and delivering on the policy intention. Moreover, the use of the word “mother” or “expectant mother” where appropriate is in line with recent case law of the Court of Appeal, as was noted by Lord Pannick in the House of Lords. These amendments are legally acceptable and the intention and meaning of the Bill would be unaffected by such a change. As discussed previously, the word “woman” or the word “Minister” would have run into legal difficulties, and I hope the words “mother” and “expectant mother” will be acceptable to hon. Members. During the passage of the Bill through the Commons, we also amended the explanatory notes.
I know that there will be some who are concerned by these amendments and by the Government’s accepting them, and I hope to give them some reassurance today. Many of their lordships who spoke in favour of these amendments also spoke about their understanding of and commitment to LGBT rights. Many hon. Members in this place who I think would support the revision were, when discussing the Bill with me, also focused on ensuring that if we ever had a trans male colleague in future who needed to make use of the provisions, that would be the case. We also hope to bring forward work in future on shared parental leave and adoption leave. If legislation is needed, and we expect that it may well be, we would add new sections to the Bill, and we anticipate not having to return to amend the wording back to “person”.
I thank all those who have taken part in debates in both Houses and made interventions. The Bill before the House today makes an important and long-overdue change to existing law. It will enable all Ministers, for the first time, to take paid maternity leave from their job for an extended period. Women who aspire to and hold high office will no longer be disadvantaged. It is in recognition of these amendments that the Government wish to proceed on that basis.
We also recognise that there is much more to be done, and, as we have said, this Bill is the first step. Throughout the Bill’s passage, the Government have made commitments to Parliament both on the wider reports on issues that could no longer be accommodated in the Bill and in relation to a review of language used in drafting legislation, with a genuine willingness to work with parliamentarians. We are thankful to Members of both Houses for their willingness to work with the Government on this issue.
I once again thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and her colleagues for their engagement on this Bill, and all hon. Members who have contributed to and spoken with passion in these debates. The Government are keen—some members of the Government in particular, I might add—to ensure that this Bill receives Royal Assent as soon as possible. I ask the House to accept the amendments and send the Bill for Royal Assent.
Having covered many of the key arguments on this Bill in previous Commons stages, I will keep my comments brief. Labour has agreed to support the Bill for the specific purpose of ensuring that the Attorney General can take maternity leave as a matter of urgency. It is shocking that we are currently in a position where women Ministers face resignation or demotion when choosing to have children.
While Labour supports the Bill as a small step forward for pregnant Ministers, there is no doubt that far too many gaps remain in it to make it fit for the 21st century. This is an important opportunity to reflect on the desperately unequal reality faced by so many women across our country today. As Centenary Action Group highlighted,
“The legislation must not be seen in a vacuum but instead as the opportunity for a…call to action to protect parents in the workplace during these difficult times.”
I am shocked that the Government have failed to respond to the discrimination faced by pregnant women trying to access the Chancellor’s self-employment support scheme during the pandemic. Indeed, the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed highlights that nearly 70,000 women were unlawfully put on statutory sick pay, thereby negatively affecting their maternity pay and other entitlements. I hope the Minister will address these broader concerns in her closing remarks.
Members across the House have expressed the widespread disappointment that the Bill lacks the ambition that it should have or any attempt to broaden it out in terms of other forms of parental leave. I welcome what the Minister has said about aspirations for Government to include paternity and shared parental leave in future legislation. I urge her to also consider the need for adoption leave and leave for parents of premature and sick babies. Indeed, the debate over the wording in this legislation and the consequence of the Lords amendments reflects the extremely limited nature of the Bill. We would not be having this discussion if the Government had made adequate provision for all parental leave.
Let us be clear: every single person, no matter their gender, deserves to have parental leave when they become a parent, but the Government’s last-minute rushing through of this Bill has stifled any wider progress on this issue. I point out that the speed at which the Government are acting to ensure that the Attorney General can rightly take maternity leave is in stark contrast to their failure to support pregnant women facing discrimination and hardship throughout the pandemic.
The Bill solves the singular issue of maternity leave for the Attorney General, an aim that Labour supports, but Labour does not condone the Government’s failure to address the wider issues of parental leave, or their failure throughout the pandemic to protect basic workers’ rights. Perhaps the Minister could provide an update on the Government’s long-awaited 2019 Queen’s Speech commitment to strengthen legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents.
Let me be clear: every worker, no matter whether they are a Minister, an MP, a factory worker or a shop worker—everyone—deserves the right to parental leave. If we have learned anything from the coronavirus crisis, it is that acting at the point of emergency is not good governance. With more lead-in time, detailed law making could have been done to ensure inclusive parental leave.
Labour will continue to fight for these employment rights. After all, Labour has a proud history of fighting for equality, from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equality Act 2010 and the introduction of the national minimum wage. All those progressive pieces of equalities legislation were delivered by Labour. I look forward to the Government’s promised legislation to make further progress in this long and ongoing fight for equality and to fill in the gaps that exist in this legislation.
Let me briefly try to set the context in which these amendments are being considered. This is an issue that goes to trans and women’s rights. It is a year since I was elected as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT+ rights, which is the only LGBT rights APPG. While the title of the group is not meant to exclude the domestic LGBT rights agenda, it is a statement about where the focus should be, given our astonishing legal and societal progress for LGB people in the UK over the last two or so decades—progress of which I am a personal and fortunate beneficiary.
When I put it in the language of my first profession, the war on these issues had been won, and we were really in the business of rounding up the prisoners—tidying up. Much of that tidying related to the complexities generated by enabling trans people also to be able to enjoy the freedom to live their lives as they wished. The trans agenda understandably became the dominating issue for the British LGBT rights lobby in our civil society. By 2018, with the publication of the LGBT action plan and the consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, the direction of travel looked set fair for trans people to be able to enjoy those rights and live their lives as they wished.
However, to say that there has been a change of climate for trans people since my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, who is guiding this Bill through the House, lost her responsibilities for equalities is something of an understatement. There is going to be no change to the Gender Recognition Act; self-identification, which is the global gold standard for rights in this area, is going to have to wait; and gender identity services, now acknowledged to be grossly underfunded, with enormous demand on them, are now under well-funded legal assault as well.
We currently face a situation where trans people feel under a full-on attack, yet if one listened to their lordships who were making the case for this amendment, one would have thought it was the other way round. The proponent of these amendments said in the other place:
“We are currently faced with a full-on attack on women’s sex- based rights—a misogynistic and bullying campaign which seeks to diminish women’s rights in the name of the rights of trans people.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 2021; Vol. 810, c. 962.]
I want to gently suggest that my noble Friend Lord Lucas turn the board around and see what the perspective is from the other side. The context is wild and exaggerated threats about the position of women’s rights from trans people. For example, his colleague in the other place, the noble Baroness Fox of Buckley, said:
“What is a threat to women is a particular brand of trans identity ideology. That does threaten women, but that is not the same as trans people.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 2021; Vol. 810, c. 945.]
I look forward to hearing the explanation of that, because what trans people are seeing is The Times newspaper —the newspaper of record in the United Kingdom—carrying 250 stories of this kind, generally without satisfactory supporting evidence.
We have this amendment in a Bill that deals with the maternity leave arrangements of one woman who happens to be the Attorney General. A debate in this House and the other place suddenly came out of nowhere, generating the most extraordinary amount of interest and passion for an entirely technical correction of an anomaly in ministerial maternity leave arrangements. Sitting behind the passion engaged on this are agendas, which are in public for those who are taking an interest—principally the trans community—of the Heritage Foundation and the LGB Alliance, which, if one examines its followers on Twitter, does not seem to have a huge wider interest in the subject of LGBT rights. They are hearing an agenda being used, which we heard only yesterday from Donald Trump in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, exploiting the issue of a potential threat to women’s sports, which need to be rescued from this threat. We know that, under the Equality Act 2010 in the United Kingdom, it is for sports administrators to make reasonable decisions to protect the integrity of their sports. These threats, in reality, do not exist.
What I want to say to trans people and their supporters is that today is not the ground on which we should stand. An innocuous sounding amendment in a tiny, technical Bill aimed at resolving the Attorney General’s maternity leave is not the place to have the fight around the principle. But there is a principle engaged here about gender-neutral language, and we have work to do to make it clear that trans rights do not come at the expense of women’s rights. We can perfectly well have both. Women’s rights must be protected, and reasonable provision must be made to protect women from threats that are real and evident. In reality, trans women pose no threat to women, but we do have those issues to address.
I therefore support the Government in accommodating this amendment, which has, to a degree, been forced upon them. But this necessary compromise must not undermine the position of the Government and what I believe to be the decent, caring majority in both Houses of Parliament who want to see trans rights properly established.
I am mindful that the Bill is in front of us today because the Attorney General is about to have a baby, and I wish her and her family all the best. Maternity leave is a right—it should not be a discretionary benefit—and that should no different for Ministers or MPs. More broadly, though, we are not in the best place on maternity either in this House or, more importantly, outside it. Many of us have spoken at length about the issues that the Bill does not tackle but ought to. None of that has anything particularly to do with the Attorney General’s leave, so I would not suggest putting any barrier in the way of that, but it is my firm intention to secure from the Minister some clear commitments as to what she will do next.
It is absolutely right, and not before time, that Ministers are able to go on maternity leave. Despite the protestations from those on the Government Benches when we discussed this before, I still think it is unacceptable that the Prime Minister of the day is the ultimate arbiter of whether this can actually happen. I have said it before and I say it again: it should never be necessary for women to seek the potentially grudging consent of a boss to take maternity leave. If it is beyond our wit in 2021 to find a more satisfactory way of dealing with things like that, it is a poor show.
That is because what we do here and what we do with this makes a difference to how other people deal with their maternity leave, be they MPs, where the status quo is not much use, either to MPs or to their constituents; our staff, and perhaps the Minister can say something about what changes could be made to Short money to support proper maternity provisions for staff members; or all the people outside the political world, who are just trying to get by and will rightly wonder why we can manage to press ahead with such haste in this situation—again, I am pleased to get this sorted for the Attorney General; it is right that we do that—but have not been able to make such progress, and at such speed that would make all the difference, for ordinary families.
The statistics from Pregnant Then Screwed say it all. Its survey of 20,000 women in July last year found, among other things, that 61% of women believe that their maternity leave was a factor in a redundancy decision, and self-employed women who have taken maternity leave in the last three years saw their Government support cut by a third, or even by two thirds, if they have taken two maternity leaves, compared with dads, who are not impacted at all financially by maternity leave.
Let me touch on the amendments to language that have emerged from the Lords. The Minister gave a pretty concerted defence of gender-neutral language previously, so I am interested to see the change of tack here, given that it is perfectly normal to draft in gender-neutral terms. I am not convinced that this change is either progress or progressive. That is relevant, first, because the Bill is far too narrow in scope and deals with only this one issue and, secondly, because our representation here is just not reflective of who we are more broadly; we are far less diverse as a political group than the people we represent, and the lack of proper provisions for maternity leave illustrate that well. The Bill, as far as it goes, only makes provision for maternity leave for birth mothers. It does not make provision for all the different types of leave we have talked about—parental leave, paternity leave, adoption leave, shared leave and so on. So I ask the Minister to reflect further on the fact that everyone should have access to decent parental leave, not just some new parents.
On that note, I would be grateful if the Minister could say exactly when she intends to come back to the House with concrete proposals to deal with all these other pressing issues, so that we can see improvements to maternity, paternity and parental leave provisions far more broadly. That is particularly important as we move beyond the lockdown phase of the pandemic and caring and work responsibilities need to work together, rather than against one another. For example, the right to request flexible working from the start of employment would help so many people, with women bearing the disproportionate burden of caring responsibilities being particularly in need of that kind of progress. That is often an issue post maternity leave.
While we are dealing with this one narrow Bill, we need to appreciate that the status quo is far from good enough. The UK has the second lowest payment rates for maternity leave of OECD countries, with less than a third of gross average earnings replaced by maternity payments. Despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave lasts for only 12 weeks and a maternity allowance of just £151.20, which is worth about half the national minimum wage for a full-time worker, is obviously completely unacceptable. The fact that that is increasing by a grand total of 77p a week in April is shockingly inadequate. The Minister has to recognise that. She also has to recognise that we really need legislation to expand eligibility for statutory maternity leave and pay for workers who still do not qualify, including people on insecure contracts such as agency workers or zero-hours contract workers.
Much needs to be done. We need action on those insecure workers, maternity leave, parental leave and paternity pay, and we need policies that take account of the different shapes of families and different kinds of support that will be necessary. All these matters have to be addressed with some urgency. I realise that they are not the specific issues in front of us today, but it all fits together into a lack of care and direction from the UK Government.
Although the SNP supports the Bill, there is no getting away from the fact that the UK ranks very poorly in terms of maternity provision, and the very particular narrow nature of the Bill does nothing to remedy that. In fact, it just demonstrates how archaic Westminster can be. It is worth reflecting that an independent Scotland could do so much better on maternity and parental leave—not just for Ministers, but for everyone.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). However, I am profoundly disappointed that we have to discuss this amendment to the language in the Bill today against a background of an increasingly bitter and divisive debate about LGBT and transgender rights. I thank the Minister for her reassurance at the beginning of the debate that there is no undermining of LGBT rights and that these issues will be addressed in the future.
I am sure that I am not alone when I say that it is the proudest boast of my life that I am a mother. I am completely committed to the rights laid down in this Bill. When it was first debated, I was concerned, as were many others, that it had taken too long to bring the legislation before us, and that it did not go far enough in recognising all forms of parenting and the need for wider parental leave. Today, I am more concerned that this important piece of legislation is potentially being, or could be, sidetracked. Regardless of my frustration about the background to the debate, I would not want that delay to happen. I know that there are those in this place who believe that there is an important political point about the language, but I do not believe that it is as important as the necessity for this Bill.
As a liberal—in this context, I believe that there are many liberals with a small “l” in this place on both sides of the House—I am firmly of the view that language that excludes or remove the rights of any group in favour of another is unacceptable. That is precisely why, for me, gender-neutral language is preferable and why it is used. It does not erase anyone. I certainly do not feel in any way compromised as a woman by its use, or that my rights are in any way undermined. For me, it also reflects more accurately the reality of modern life.
The Bill relates to benefits accruing to those who give birth, extending them to Government Ministers and some Opposition spokespeople who currently do not have those benefits. It does not deal with the registration of births; it is not proposed that that process be changed. Neither does the scope extend to legal gender recognition or restrictions. In that context, I would have no objection whatever to the gender-neutral language if it were used, and I have no intention of objecting to the change. However, I cannot see why Parliament would not persist with gender-neutral language in the future. As the Minister made it clear that there will be further legislation, that this legislation does not affect LGBT rights, and that, if the occasion arises, a trans male Minister would not be disadvantaged, I feel that the importance of this legislation —and of having it enacted as quickly as possible—means that we should not delay over perfectly legal language.
In the run-up to International Women’s Day, this is an opportune moment to welcome the Bill and the long overdue advancement of basic rights that it brings for women in Parliament. No Minister should be forced out of their post due to pregnancy, and participation in politics and public life should be accessible to all. However, gaping holes remain. The Bill only covers maternity leave for birth mothers and does not include paternity, shared parental or adoption leave, or considerations for parents of premature babies.
Centuries of struggle by women and trade unions and international best practice show that gender equality is best achieved when rights to parental leave are extended to all parents, so although this development is welcome it does not go far enough. The Bill fails to cover Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly, so will the Minister commit to strengthening the Bill and making it more inclusive at the earliest possible opportunity? If we cannot get it right in the corridors of power, how can we expect the policies we decide in Parliament to effectively tackle gender discrimination throughout society?
After a decade of austerity cuts by this Government that fell heavily on the shoulders of working women, and particularly on black working women—cuts that the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty called so sexist that they may as well have been compiled by a group of misogynists in a room—is it at all surprising that the pandemic has disproportionately left women at greater risk of leaving or losing their jobs, reducing their income and taking on extra caring burdens?
Earlier this month, a report from the Women and Equalities Committee, which I sit on, warned that this Government’s plans for economic recovery risk turning back the clock unless the equality impact of every policy is fully assessed. Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm the Government’s commitment to assessing the equality impact of their covid recovery plans? Women are more likely to be employed in sectors shut down during the pandemic, are more vulnerable to job loss or being placed on furlough, and are disproportionately employed on precarious contracts. The burden of juggling childcare and home schooling duty, as well as caring responsibilities for elderly or sick family members, has all fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women.
Research by the TUC revealed that a quarter of working mums are using their annual leave to manage their childcare during covid, with nearly one in five being forced to reduce their working hours or to take unpaid leave from work. In response, the TUC has called for temporary access to the furlough scheme for parents and those with caring responsibilities, and I want to take this opportunity to add my voice to that call.
In conclusion, the provisions of the Bill barely scratch the surface when it comes to promoting gender equality in Parliament and ensuring that politics is both accessible and inclusive. I urge the Government to take this opportunity to commit to strengthening the Bill and to acknowledge the need for much more to be done to protect basic rights for women inside and outside Parliament.
I would like to say a few brief words and thank all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. This is all about making sure that Ministers’ maternity allowances are in place, so the amendments are very simple, as has been suggested, and I believe that there should be no difficulty in accepting them.
I can well remember that when someone close to me had a miscarriage, she was told on Mother’s Day by a lovely lady who had given her flowers in her church with all the other mothers. “You do not have your baby, but you’re still a mummy.” Whether a mother holds her baby in her arms or only in her heart, the creation of life gives her that title and I believe that it is right and proper that we respect that in law. I support the amendments, which simply clarify that position.
I echo the comments of others who have suggested to the Minister in a very nice way that this should be the first stage in delivering for elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and for councillors and those who hold positions in local government. It is time to get it right. In her conclusion, perhaps the Minister can reassure us that those in the devolved Administrations and at council level will find the same liberties, equalities and opportunities.
I thank all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. In closing this debate, I will respond to a few of the points made. The Government have been clear throughout the debate in both this House and the House of Lords that the Bill is an important step forward that at last makes provision for Ministers to take paid maternity leave. I repeat my thanks to the Opposition Front Benchers for their constructive support—not only on this, but on the future work we are planning to bring forward. I am pleased that the Bill will be able to make similar maternity provisions for Opposition office holders as well.
I turn to the comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). In earlier consideration of the Bill, I spoke about the context in which we are bringing it forward. I am very conscious that even if we took into account future ministerial post-holders, this is still a tiny group of individuals compared with the general population.
There is work that we want to bring forward, not least the work that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been leading on, to help make progress on a number of related areas. This Bill has afforded me the opportunity to check in with those Ministers and to encourage them. It is understandable that the effort of that Department has been focused on the pandemic, but if we are to recover from that, we have to ensure that women are economically empowered and are supported, and many of the things that BEIS has been looking at will help do that.
The hon. Lady asks whether we have considered premature and sick babies. We have, and I think the provisions in the Bill will certainly help anyone in that situation. We originally drafted this Bill to incorporate adoption leave and shared parental leave, but it was too difficult because of some of the issues around the royal prerogative, Ministers, caps on payroll and so forth, which is why we need a little bit more time to do this additional piece of work before we bring back, I think, future legislation to address those issues.
That will also dock into work that hon. Members will want to do in this place with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. We recognise its independence, but clearly we are talking about the same individuals. Indeed, the Attorney General may have got her ministerial situation sorted—I hope, if this Bill gets Royal Assent—but she will still face the difficulties that other Members have spoken about as a Member of Parliament.
Turning to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), I first thank him and the all-party group for the incredible work they have done not only on domestic issues, but internationally. When we in this place look back at footage of our predecessors and see some of the remarks made decades ago about LGBT people and the homophobia that was exhibited, I am sure that all of us cringe. I think we should ask ourselves whether, were we in the Commons at that time, we would have called it out. Would we have gone out of our way to send our support, empathy and understanding to gay people at the time?
The challenge for us today is exactly the same with trans people, and I hope that all Members of this House—I know that many Members do—take that responsibility extremely seriously, none more so than my hon. Friend. The amendments we are accepting today are legitimate and understandable, and critically they are also legally sound, but let me say in supporting them from this Dispatch Box that trans men are men and trans women are women, and great care has been taken in the drafting and accepting of these amendments to ensure that that message has got across.
So often these issues are presented as an intractable row between two incompatible positions. They are not; they are about all people being able to go about their lives and to be supported in doing so. I know that many hon. Members in this place and their lordships in the other place feel that very strongly and feel a huge responsibility. As a woman, I agree with many of the comments made today. I want the rights of all women to be taken care of and all men to be safeguarded, too.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) made some very good points. I have to inform her again, sadly, that Ministers have no rights because of the royal prerogative—I am sorry to say that—and, therefore, the Prime Minister is the arbiter of this, but I cannot imagine a situation where any Prime Minister would not allow someone to take maternity leave. If anyone has any idea how to get around that as a Minister, I am quite keen to have some rights. We will obviously keep that under review, but that is the current situation.
The hon. Lady also questioned whether the Bill was progressive. I think it is progressive for women and for trans men, and that is an important message that we should send. We want to bring the future piece of work that we wish to do on those other matters back to this place before the summer recess. I do not know whether it will involve legislation or the nature of that legislation, so I cannot give her any more assurances on that, but we will bring back the work that we will do cross-party on these matters.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) made some very powerful remarks; I thank her for them and agree with them entirely. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) also spoke about the context in which we are presenting this Bill. I reassure her that it is our intention to bring forward adoption leave and shared parental leave and related matters. She is right to point to the impact of the pandemic on women. Finally, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) shared a sad and beautiful story with us. We have taken into consideration the situation where there is a stillborn child. We spoke on Second Reading about the opportunities that this presents for the devolved Administrations and, importantly, for councillors.
In conclusion, the Government have accepted these amendments. We are confident that the wording of the Bill is legally accurate and does not adversely affect the operation of its intent. Moreover, the Government are content that the Lords amendments are legally acceptable and more inclusive than other suggested alternatives. The Government are supporting these amendments in this House and recommends to it that they are accepted and that the Bill is now allowed to proceed to Royal Assent.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 15 agreed to.