Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard))
Baroness Uddin Excerpts
Thursday 25th February 2021

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. I too was unfortunately unable to take part at Second Reading but congratulate my noble friend Lady Noakes on her brilliant speech on Monday. Did she really expect to be here today listening to this debate?

Like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I think that the cross-party ad hoc group that came into being shows what can be achieved. I pay tribute to my noble friends Lady Nicholson, Lady Noakes and Lord Lucas, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, among many others. Perhaps I may be permitted also to publicly thank Karen Wilmot for her tireless efforts. I hope that my noble friend Lady Nicholson will give her some well-deserved time off this weekend.

My right honourable friend Suella Braverman is indeed my friend. I wish her, Rael and baby George well—as indeed would the majority of people throughout this country. This is exactly my point. The overwhelming majority of people in our country sometimes wonder what we are all about—or, more accurately, what the drafters of this Bill were thinking, or, more pertinently, who they were listening to. What concerns me most is when the Government appear to listen to the noisiest groups and seem to want to satisfy those small, vocal activists rather than the overwhelming but perhaps silent majority.

So, instead of appealing to my noble friend the Minister, I congratulate him. One of the pleasures of being a Member of your Lordships’ House is being present in the Chamber to witness great speeches and intense debate, and to watch and learn from the skill of Ministers in dealing with situations, marrying up the briefs that have been prepared for them with the need to be nimble and articulate. I watched with admiration how the Minister worked tirelessly to pilot the UK trade co-operation Bill through this House. He was on top of his brief, was always courteous, stood his ground and day after day, week after week, did a magnificent job on behalf of the overwhelming majority of people in this country.

In the same way that he deployed an abundance of common sense to pilot that most difficult, complicated and politically charged piece of legislation, I was going to appeal to him to stand back and focus on the amendment, focus on what is clearly the right thing to do and focus on serving the overwhelming majority of people in this country. But I am deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord True, as I am sure that he led the discussion to ensure that common sense prevailed. I hope that this lesson has now been learned.

Baroness Uddin Portrait Baroness Uddin (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his personal assurances and commitment to improving the Bill, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for her leadership and intervention.

The Government have acknowledged the significance of women’s role in giving birth. Language is imperative in setting out law. I would have preferred “woman” but support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, as this honours mothers. I will say a quick work about feeding babies. Both my husband and I have chests, although mine is slightly adjusted, so it was me who ended up breastfeeding my five children. So I take great exception to the word “chestfeeding” and hope that we will not descend to the farce that has got us here.

Women like me have entered public life and carried on birthing children and experiencing great financial stress. This has reminded me of having to attend a Labour Group AGM on the third day after my daughter was born in 1992. I was immediately informed by the then leader, who is now the mayor of the council, that my baby was not entitled to enter the building and, more importantly, our shared office. I was similarly vilified in a national newspaper for bringing my eight month-old son to this House for one day in 1998—although subsequently sentiments changed towards other colleagues and mothers, thank God, who were regarded as heroic for bringing in their newborn babies and children.

It was a farce that led us to refer to a “person”, not a “woman”, no matter the explanation. While I appreciate the miraculous advances in medicine and science, not least the discovery of Covid-19 vaccines at such speed, I do not foresee that in my lifetime men will be birthing babies. Apart from anything else, it would certainly speed up population control. Until then, we should ensure that we provide women with the necessary support, and I support this Bill very strongly.

Due to House procedures and unforeseen circumstances I was not able to participate at Second Reading. I am glad of this opportunity to do so at this stage, as I welcome and support this Bill very much. I thank all noble Lords across the House for their powerful contributions. Like many other noble Lords, I would like to see the Government give further urgent consideration to improving maternity pay and conditions for all women in other professions, including local authority councillors. I have spent most of my life working first in the NGO context and then as a contracted social worker, not entitled to the luxury of full maternity pay. This has been the experience of hundreds of thousands of women, including Members of this House who have been pregnant during their time here.

Equal access to work is not the reality for many, and despite the Equal Pay Act 1970, our statutory maternity pay is a mere £152 a week, which is probably not enough to cover nappies these days. Over 50% of women from ethnic minority backgrounds work in insecure and low-paid sectors. I have strived for equal justice and whenever I have been in a decision-making position, I have taken action on employment rights, including maternity pay for staff, which is an essential element of workers’ rights.

The very first time any women within the NGO sector had full maternity rights provided was in 1982. I managed a women-led organisation, and I negotiated with the then GLC women’s committee, which had the foresight to support this—much to the angst of the local union, which argued that unless all NGOs were paying their maternity entitlement, one organisation should not be an exception. But I stood my ground, with the support of women locally and other women’s organisations, and maternity payments are still preserved in that organisation 36 years later.

This is really important. I persisted with that organisation. Despite the fact that they were all minority women, they were entitled to proper wages because unless you have proper wages it is no good relying on measly packets of maternity pay. This is a very important factor. Working conditions for minority women remain appalling. The incredible coalition that has been evident throughout these discussions on the Bill has been so powerful. We must now strengthen our resolve to ensure that we do not revert to accepting anything less than the best possible financial care for women, expectant mothers and mothers. We should do everything possible in our deliberations. We have raised hope for women across our country that we commit to making sure that they also are given their fullest maternity entitlement.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister, and I am most grateful to him for the time and effort that he has taken to meet our cross-party group of Peers and to make himself available in such an understanding and courteous manner. I am delighted that he has been able to accept the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Lucas, which I wholeheartedly support. I also thank my noble friends Lady Nicholson and Lady Noakes for their wisdom and leadership, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Winston, and my noble friends Lord Lucas and Lord Cormack and others on the cross-party group who have been so steadfast in their efforts to address this most sensitive and difficult issue.

In my view, anyone who gives birth is a mother. Respect for motherhood is important. As Aristotle said, the worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal. The use of the term “pregnant person” undermines the case for women’s equality and seems to marginalise women in the context of their biological role. I apologise to noble Lords that I was unable to be present at Second Reading, and I thank the Committee for allowing me to speak in this debate.

I support women’s rights. Indeed, having worked in the City some 30 years ago and having seen the progress that women have made in what used so often to be a man’s world and no longer is, I regret that there is some perception that standing up for the rights and roles of women in some way denigrates other groups. I am not transphobic. I respect anyone’s right to own their own sexuality, but balancing equalities must not become the sort of topic that in the name of equality marginalises other groups’ rights. I echo the words of so many others that the rights of minorities must be respected. Again, I am grateful that my noble friend the Minister has been able to accept my noble friend Lord Lucas’s amendment, and that the House seems to have been able to make a real difference on this most important debate.

I shall finish with the words of Gandhi:

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.”

I believe we have moved a step closer to passing that test today.