Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay

David Linden Excerpts
Monday 19th June 2023

(10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. I join the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate. I also welcome Ms Sheridan to the Gallery and thank her for creating the petition.

To pick up where the hon. Member for Strangford left off, I have a great deal of sympathy for the proposal that we introduce some sort of salary sacrifice scheme for mortgages. The reality is that 2.6 million fixed rate mortgages are due to expire before the end of the year. Unfortunately, my fixed rate mortgage expired in October, so my mortgage has doubled in the course of the last year. As a Member of Parliament, I can obviously absorb that cost to a certain extent, but as the hon. Member for Strangford outlined, for far too many families that will simply not be the case. It is perhaps no surprise that mothers are, for example, facing the indignity of having to ask for formula to be taken from behind the counter because there is a fear that it could be shoplifted.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North was spot on about the cost of living crisis. It has certainly been my party’s No. 1 priority; we have been doing everything in our power to support our constituents throughout this incredibly difficult time. It is because I have seen the impact of the crisis on my constituents day in and day out that I wanted to take part in today’s debate. I have seen the frankly devastating consequences of my constituents being unable to afford their weekly food shop and struggling to pay their energy bills. That is an irony that is not lost on people who live on an island that is energy-rich.

While the pervasive crisis is clearly impacting everyone, the parents of young families are perhaps feeling the belt tightening the most. I caution colleagues that it is not necessarily a new issue; the Government in Westminster sadly have a long and torrid history of penalising young and single-parent households in particular. The SNP has consistently urged the British Government to improve parental leave and pay. Upon arriving here in 2017, I spent my first few years using just about every parliamentary mechanism possible to push the Government to introduce legislation that would give additional leave and pay to parents such as myself who had premature or sick babies, in addition to the maternity and paternity leave and pay that they are entitled to.

Whenever I leave this place, the proudest moment of my time as an MP will still be when my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) chose to take on that cause for his private Member’s Bill, which I am pleased received Royal Assent last month. In short, it means that parents of premature and sick babies, as we were with Isaac and Jessica, will never again have to go through that terrible time. I pay tribute to all who joined that long and hard-fought campaign. The legislation will change the lives of thousands of families and will undoubtedly make life that little bit easier for parents who are already experiencing a difficult time.

We have come so far, but we have so much further to go. Another colleague and friend of mine, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), has campaigned tirelessly for paid leave for anyone who has suffered a miscarriage. Alongside those campaigns, my party has continually—as have others, to be fair—called on the British Government to improve parental leave and pay generally. That issue is more important than ever, not just in the face of the ongoing cost of living crisis but in recognition that the world of work is changing.

Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, it is concerning that among OECD countries the UK has the second-lowest payment rates for maternity leave. Less than one third of gross average earnings are replaced by maternity leave and despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave lasts for only 12 weeks.

As a Scottish National party MP, I obviously disagree with the fact that employment law is reserved to lawmakers here in Westminster. Similarly, I remain bemused, as does the Scottish Trades Union Congress, that the Labour party refuses to support the devolution of employment law. But while such powers still rest here, I must urge the British Government to increase maternity and paternity pay, to review the eligibility for maternity allowance and to give partners an additional 12 weeks’ paid leave on a non- transferable “use it or lose it” basis within shared parental leave.

It is truly appalling that many workers still do not qualify for statutory maternity leave and pay, including those on insecure contracts, such as zero-hours workers. That is why the Conservative Government must act urgently to rectify this injustice by legislating to expand eligibility for statutory maternity leave and pay. However, the reality is that the British social security system is unjust and penalises parents, particularly young families. I am fed up doing so, but I again ask the Government to bring forward the long-awaited employment Bill that could deal with some of these issues.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North outlined on its behalf, the Petitions Committee has highlighted before that there is a real disparity in the treatment of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay, particularly when it comes to universal credit, which further penalises self-employed mothers and those on low incomes. Under the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, and certainly in contrast to statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance is treated as unearned income by the Department for Work and Pensions, and is deducted in full from UC awards. For any of us who operate within the sphere of the DWP, it is clear that maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay should be equalised. I invite the Minister to address that point in her response to the debate.

In addition, the Government must end the young parent penalty in universal credit that denies single parents under the age of 25 the same level of social security as those above that age, pushing those impacted into poverty. I pay tribute to One Parent Families Scotland, which campaigns relentlessly against the young parent penalty.

It has also been a staple element of my party’s policy to oppose the two-child limit and its associated rape clause, or—to use the Sunday name that the UK Government prefer—the non-consensual sex exemption. This policy has been on the statute book for far too long. I suspect that the Minister will stand up and talk about the importance of families, but it is rather difficult for her to do so when there is a Government policy that has a state cap on the number of children that the Government will support and, more despicably, a rape clause attached.

These individual policies are all part of a larger picture of a social security system that penalises the very poorest and the most vulnerable. You are a committed Member of the Work and Pensions Committee, Mr McCabe, like myself, so I know that you too see this situation every Wednesday morning when the Committee takes evidence—overwhelming evidence that we need to provide greater support. The evidence that we see is the likes of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows that families with younger children, and particularly lone-parent families, are predominantly headed by women and face a disproportionate risk of poverty.

It is clear that under the Tories, the current social security system is inadequate and is now at the stage where frankly it is falling apart at a time when people need it most. The SNP has long called for the British Government to fix these fundamental flaws. However, the sheer reality is that with 85% of welfare expenditure and income-replacement benefits reserved to this place, our hands in Scotland are tied. Yes, the SNP Government in Holyrood can do what they can, whether that is with the baby box, the best start grant or the limited devolved benefits and powers that we have, but the reality is that the vast majority of welfare decision making remains in the hands of a Tory Government we did not vote for; indeed, we have not voted for a Tory Government since 1955.

I will name just a few policies in Scotland: the fair work first policy promotes fairer work practices across the labour market; the baby box ensures that every child begins life with the essential items it needs; the Scottish child payment, which by the way is not confined to just two children, is now £25 per week and has been described as game-changing by charities; and free childcare is provided to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds, saving eligible families £5,000 per child per year. I declare an interest as somebody who is a recipient of that.

The SNP is committed to social security being an investment in people, and it is part of the Scottish Government’s national mission to tackle child poverty, levels of which are still far too high. In April, all Scottish benefits were uprated in line with inflation, by 10.1%, at a cost of around £430 million. In addition to that, £5.2 billion was invested in benefits expenditure in Budget 2023-24, supporting over 1 million people.

I could go on listing the policies that the Scottish Government have put in place to support low-income families and to tackle child poverty, from the £50 million commitment to the tackling child poverty fund—providing £69.7 million for employability support for parents through the no one left behind approach—to providing £50 million for the whole family wellbeing programme and a further £30 million for the keep the promise plan for care-experienced children and young people. But the reality is that we are doing all this from our devolved budget while trying to mitigate poor welfare decisions, such as the bedroom tax, which is mitigated entirely in Scotland through discretionary housing payments. However, I would always remind people back home that what we spend on nullifying the bedroom tax is money that we cannot spend on health or education, for example. That is just the stark reality.

My party is committed to alleviating poverty and ensuring that people live in a fair and just society. On the other hand, the Conservatives here in London are intent on deepening inequalities and on cementing poverty and hardship across communities in Scotland, where they have no democratic mandate. Yes, we can enact all the policies I mentioned just a moment ago with one hand tied behind our back, but every additional pound that we spend on measures to help with rising costs must be funded from reductions elsewhere, given our largely fixed budget and limited fiscal powers. The Scottish Government are using those limited powers and resources to do everything they can, but this must be matched by the Government here in London. With every day that the UK Government fail to use their reserved powers to adequately tackle the rising cost of living, they are demonstrating that independence is the only way for Scotland to boost incomes and build a fairer society—and having social justice at its heart is so important.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr McCabe, and I thank everyone who has spoken in today’s debate. Despite the attendance, this is a matter of great importance to millions of people up and down the country. I am sorry to Nicola, the organiser of the petition, that more Members were not here to speak. I am sure we are all aware that other business is catching people’s attention today, but I hope that those who have heard the debate will see that there is a lot of interest and well-informed opinion about the challenges that new parents face.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her introduction to the debate, which gave a comprehensive overview of the challenges that new parents face. She mentioned—I will discuss this in a little while—the huge costs that new parents face, which have increased in recent times. There is a chasm between those costs and the rates of statutory maternity pay, which have also been discussed. She gave us a whole range of facts and figures to demonstrate that, and the personal testimonies from mothers she has spoken to illustrate the real difficulties that many people are facing. She mentioned the Government line that maternity pay is in line with other out-of-work benefits, which shows how completely out of touch they are and demonstrates the lack of understanding about the huge workload that any new parent will face.

My hon. Friend rightly identified loopholes in relation to self-employment for adopted parents. Obviously that needs to be addressed, because we know that formally adopting a child is a huge financial commitment, and those financial barriers need to be removed. Her wide-ranging speech touched on childcare costs, the impact that maternity leave can have on a woman’s pay for the rest of her life—something that still exists, 50-odd years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced—and maternal mental health, which is grossly overlooked at times. Her conclusion that having a child is a calculation made on a spreadsheet really hit home. All parents look at that when planning a family, but when we look at the costs households face—huge increases in housing cost, student loan payments, an increased tax burden, pension contributions and childcare costs—we can see how, for many, the sums do not add up, and that brings home what a challenge this is.

It was a pleasure, as always, to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without a contribution from him. Like him, I have three boys. I wonder how similar they are—it would be interesting to compare notes at some point. He made some valuable points about the cost of raising a family, with the cost of the first year being £6,000. It probably feels like more for many because babies grow out of their clothes so quickly and there are all the set-up costs.

We are fortunate in my part of the world that the charity KidsBank, which is based in Chester but operates in Ellesmere Port and Neston, provides new parents with a lot of those essentials. They are all recycled and donated goods, but it is a critical thing for those families who are on the breadline and who need that support. It shows how difficult it is to raise a family.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - -

The hon. Member makes the powerful point that more often than not it falls to the third sector to step in and support people. Does he agree that it is not a sign of the big society that these groups, however great the work they are doing is, fulfil that need, but a sign of a broken welfare state that is fundamentally beyond repair?

--- Later in debate ---
Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank hon. Members for joining us this afternoon. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate so thoughtfully.

As we have heard, being a parent is an incredibly important and rewarding job. It is one that comes with a unique set of challenges, from recovering from birth with a newborn to balancing employment and care and, in my own life, being a sandwich carer, so I absolutely understand the challenges. While I have the floor, I pay tribute to local firefighters who were battling a fire in Burgess Hill in my constituency just this afternoon, with members of the public being sent home and asked to be vigilant after another one yesterday in Sharpthorne. If you will indulge me, Mr McCabe, I thank them very much.

An 18-year-old will be coming into my house very shortly, and another teen. As a single mum and a woman returner, I really do get it, and I hope that some of my remarks will reflect that. I will be clear that I cannot answer all the issues, because they are not all in my remit, but I will undertake to write and share what I can and bring other Departments to account.

Last week was Loneliness Awareness Week. As parents, I think we have all felt incredibly lonely and isolated. Being a single parent can be overwhelming and incredibly difficult. It can be hard work; the pressures are not new, but they are definitely challenging right now. Overall, it is a wondrous, joyous slog—let us all be honest about that. Just after fathers’ day, we reflect that the boost for gender equality and equal parent support is vital. I thank Nicola for being here today, and all the groups and charities that support parents through this precious and—as we all recall, if ours are a little older—challenging time.

Speaking of baby boxes, on a slightly different point, I remember that my mum and dad gave me a war chest. They had been struggling with long-term illness and not having a huge amount of money, but it was a labour of love and of many trips to Poundland, and it really made a difference. We know that everything makes a difference at the start, when the parent is feeling the pressure and has had a big change in their life, particularly if the child is their first. Of course, added to that are high inflation, the cost of living challenges and global pressures, which make it very difficult to look after that precious little bundle. That is why it is important that in April we increased the rate of all statutory parental payments by 10.1%, in line with CPI, and we will continue to take decisive action to help households. I will outline some more of what we are doing shortly.

It is our firm belief that the best way to help people improve their financial circumstances throughout their life is through work, but, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, only when the time is right. It is important that people are given a choice, so I strongly agree with the points she made. We need to be ambitious in enabling parents to progress in work; it must not be only people without children who can do that, so we need to get things right. We need to support children by enabling their parents to be there when they want. That is equally valuable, and the flexible parental leave entitlements for new parents support just that.

I recognise that this is a complicated area, as hon. Members have said—I have taken their points on board. It is also vital that adopters get a better deal and more assistance. My wider family has experience of that, and it is really important too.

Parents must have access to the range of support and entitlements they need for their child’s first year. We are giving working families more choice and flexibility about who cares for their child when the parents are at work. Our statutory maternity leave entitlement is rightly generous, but hon. Members have said it is not generous enough—if only I had a magic wand. We offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid through statutory maternity pay. For self-employed women, who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay—I was one, so I very much understand the insecurity—maternity allowance is available. Both payments are designed to enable women to stop working towards the end of their pregnancy and in the precious months after childbirth. That is in their and their baby’s best interest; it supports their health, wellbeing and, above all, bonding.

I fully recognise the role that fathers can and must play in that crucial time, their child’s first year. We have a real opportunity to boost gender equality and support parents; I will say more about that later. Statutory paternity leave and pay arrangements enable employed fathers and partners who meet the qualifying conditions to take up to two weeks of paid leave within the first eight weeks following the birth of their child or placement for adoption. Qualifying parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly said that shared parental leave gives mothers who wish to return to work the opportunity to do so, and rightly enables the father or partner to be the primary carer if they wish.

We want more men to confidently take the helm. Employers can really help with that by understanding that dads want and need to be there at key moments, not just the nativity or the parents evening. In fact, I am the guilty party who is never there for the parents evening, so it is flipped around in my world these days. If men can confidently be there, perhaps, as Opposition Members said, we can boost the take-up of the scheme, which started in 2015. We forecasted that between 2% and 8% of eligible couples would take part, and the actual take-up is broadly in line with that. It is increasing each year, but not fast enough. That is the challenge for us all: how we make the scheme something that people really feel they can take part in. In order to do that, the shared parental leave online tool is accessible for parents to check their eligibility and plan their leave together. We are currently evaluating the shared parental leave scheme and will publish our findings in due course.

There has been a clear message today on rates. The rate of all statutory parental payments is reviewed annually and, as mentioned, generally increases in line with the CPI. The Government will spend around £276 billion in 2023-24 on welfare support in Great Britain. I will come to further support for those who may be listening this afternoon who perhaps have not reached out for additional help. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about the slightly indelicate link between out of work benefits and the support that we give to parents. I note her comments on that, and pretty much agree with her. I will take that away in terms of how we talk about supporting people who are out of work, and how we support pregnant working women when they are in the special position—let us be honest—of coming to the point when they want to do what is right for them next, and new mothers.

The Government spend approximately £3 billion on maternity payments. There is a balance to strike both in language and in any changes to the rate of SMP, taking account of economic circumstances and affordability for taxpayers. We also need to speak to stakeholders, some of whom have been mentioned, and businesses. It needs to be a holistic effort. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) gave a list of future plans that he may have, but in reality we want to ensure that we hear the asks both of the petitioners who have challenged us this afternoon and of the sectors and businesses, to ensure that we take people on any change journey. We have talked about planning, saving and spreadsheets where needed. I was—briefly, it feels like—married to an accountant, so I felt as if I was living in a world of spreadsheets. It is what we all have to do, and it is a challenge, particularly when we do not know what we do not know when it comes to parenting, and the impact that it will have on our back pocket.

I think employers can do more. The work of the civil service was mentioned. We have a very tight labour market. Consider a talented, skilled, brilliant woman who is adopting or becoming a mum in whatever way, whether for the first time or growing her family. Employers really need to think forward about job design and making it work for such women to return. I mentioned that I am a single mum; when I came to this place, I was a woman returner. Many of us are, and many mums, for various reasons, have been locked out of the labour market for far too long. They have incredible ability and talent. Employers have a chance to look at job design. In my constituency, Boeing has created a deliberate part-time role—not a role where a person squeezes full time into part time, but an actual role where they add value in a way that works for their circumstances. If we have more people in the labour market doing more, everyone will do better, so let us all challenge ourselves on that.

I have been given an extremely long speech, so I will try not to repeat things that many people will know, and will try to answer some of the questions. Hopefully I have covered the way in which things are calculated and equal access for adoptive parents. I agree with the point on the Healthy Start scheme needing a boost with regard to take-up. I will take that away to work on with colleagues. I think the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made a fair point on outcomes and monitoring, and I note that.

My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), talked about tax relief, which was reiterated by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). I am not in the Treasury, and I am delighted about that every day; until I get the call-up, I will pass on that headache for as long as possible. I say that very gently—did I actually say that out loud? My point is that it is a matter for the Treasury. I am sure it is listening and I will leave it to get on with it.

Regarding the Scotland Act 1998, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Glasgow East is using those powers. I note his point about under-25s; that is not my policy area, but he knows that I have a strong interest in youth policy and single parents. I undertake to understand his point and take it away.

For those listening to this debate who have a concern about mortgages, I said on the Floor of the House this afternoon, and I reiterate here, that if people are worried they should engage with their mortgage lender. There is support for mortgage interest out there. We have abolished the zero-earnings rule to allow claimants on universal credit to receive support while in work and on UC—support is now available after three months. People should engage with their lenders. We paid £25 million to 12,000 households in 2021-22 and we will continue to extend that support for mortgage interest rates. People should use the benefits calculator on gov.uk if they are concerned; there is help for households on that site and links to the household support fund, which I will come on to shortly.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East raised a concern about miscarriage leave. Miscarriages are a deeply challenging, personal and devasting experience for many women, as well as their partners and families. In this place we have got better at talking about such things, but it is still too unspoken and difficult in the workplace, which is something a friend of mine recently spoke to me about. The Government believe that individuals are best placed to know their own specific needs, and that good employers will rightly respond in a sensitive way to requests made by employees.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - -

I do not intend to make this issue a party political point. Knowing the Minister very well, I think there is a genuine willingness to try and fix the issue. It is not something that should be hard. I caution the Government, however, that simply hoping that employers do the right thing is not something that we can rely on in this place. The Minister is right that the vast majority of employers would agree if an employee went to them and said, “I have had a miscarriage. Can I have some time off?” The reason that we legislate in this place is to ensure that the few are looked after. It is for that reason that it is important the Government look again and do not just leave it to the market. They should step in and do what the state does best.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. It is not an area that I am in charge of, but I am sure that those who are will be listening. Of course, if a woman unfortunately has a miscarriage, there are protections that extend to two weeks after the end of that pregnancy. That is a protection under the Equality Act 2010. I understand, however, the hon. Gentleman’s point about what happens before 24 weeks. This is a difficult one, which is why Nicola and the other petitioners, by bringing the petition to the House and making us focus on all of the issues, did the right thing. I have nearly got myself in enough trouble this afternoon, without creating any more policy in this Chamber, so I will refrain from saying more on that one.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point on the two child policy. We disagree on that point in terms of families on benefits facing the same financial challenges and choices when it comes to growing their family as those who are supported solely through work. It is important that child benefit continues to be paid for all children in eligible families, but it is right that we continue with that policy where appropriate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned those particular exemptions. Again, I note that it is a challenging area.

Opposition Members raised the issue of support for childcare. It is important to provide the right support for parents who are balancing childcare and returning to work. The Government have already put in more than £20 billion in the last five years to support families with the cost of childcare, and thousands of parents have benefited from that support. However, more changes are coming. We announced in the Budget that by 2027-28 we will provide £4.1 billion to expand the current free childcare offer to eligible working parents of children aged between nine and 36 months. I recognise that Government-funded childcare, which is free to the recipient, needs design. That was mentioned to a degree in the Chamber this afternoon. We are expecting to spend more than £8 billion a year on that funding and early education, which represents the biggest ever single investment in childcare in England.

I will quickly cover neonatal pay and pregnancy discrimination and then try to conclude, because I am mindful that I have spoken for some time. We are aware that more needs to be done to support parents whose children are in neonatal care. Many of us in the House know people personally who have been impacted by this issue. Again, the House has come into its own by talking about it and its impact on families.

In March 2020, following a Government consultation, we committed to introducing a new entitlement to neonatal leave and pay. The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023 will introduce an entitlement of up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents whose child is admitted to neonatal care. The entitlement will support new parents during the most stressful days of their lives, ensuring that they can be there for their youngster. The Act received Royal Assent on 24 May this year, and we anticipate that the entitlement will become available to parents in April 2025. I hope that that helps hon. Members.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - -

The Act was originally my Bill, so I am familiar with it. There is a slight issue with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs dragging its heels. Notwithstanding what the Minister said about not being a Treasury Minister, will she at least write to HMRC following today’s debate, outlining that there is cross-party agreement? Indeed, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) has been excellent on this issue. There is cross-party agreement that £50 million has been committed in the budget line, but there is no need for us to wait that long because of the lag in HMRC guidance.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I know it was a deeply personal Bill for him and he will be strident on this issue. I will take away that ask as he wishes.

I turn to pregnancy and maternity discrimination protections. Ensuring that parents have the leave and flexibility that they need during this period is important, as is ensuring that they are protected against discrimination and do not suffer any detriment for taking that leave. That is why we are rightly extending pregnancy and maternity discrimination protection for those returning from periods of eligible parental leave. The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023 will enable redundancy protections to apply from the point at which an employee told their employer that they were pregnant, until six months after returning from maternity, adoption or shared parental leave. The provision will protect individuals from redundancy and help mothers to remain, rightly, in the workforce.

Support needs to go way beyond the first year of a child’s life, so it is important that there are further entitlements for others. Time off for dependants is important as well, and I will update the House further on that.

It is important for me to cover flexible working. We are fully committed to ensuring that parents get the support that is right for them. The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill received its Second Reading in the other place on 19 May. That Bill will increase the number of requests that an employee can make in a 12-month period, reduce the time allowed to administer requests, and support more effective conversations about what flexible working arrangements may work to the benefit of both employer and employee. Alongside the Bill, the Government will introduce regulations, as mentioned, to make the right to request flexible working apply from the first day of employment, bringing an estimated additional 2.2 million employees into the scope of the legislation. My understanding is that as soon as parliamentary time allows, this will be moving forward.

I mentioned cost of living support. Statutory parental pay is only one aspect of Help for Households. There is support worth £94 billion across 2022-23 and 2023-24 to help people with rising bills; the support is worth £3,300 per UK household on average. Included in that are cost of living payments to more than 8 million low-income households, about 6 million disabled people and more than 8 million pensioner households. I would say to anybody, “Please look at the benefits calculator. Please look at Help for Households. Please reach out to your local council or your devolved Administration, because there is extra support out there.”

I will close by reiterating the Government’s commitment to supporting parents as we continue to face high inflation. We understand the added, varied and complex pressures that we have heard about and discussed this afternoon, which parents are experiencing alongside the cost of living and inflation challenges. That is why we have done the right thing with the uprating, in line with CPI, of statutory parental payments—alongside other payments—by 10.1%. We will continue to take decisive action to help all households.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for opening this petition debate. I will continue to support women—as long as I have breath, and a seat in this House—in any role that I have. It is great that we all come together on something that is so important. On some areas there will of course be disagreements, but as long as we continue to work together to support parents, at this most difficult time, in any part of our community—I am seeing some of my great local charities, the local food bank and other supporters on Monday; there is additional support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by the way, for local charities—we will really make the difference and ensure that no parent, whatever their situation, and no family ever feel alone.