Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 19th June 2023

(10 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I am going to lead the charge of the Back Benchers all by myself. I do not intend to speak for too long; I will do my customary 10 minutes or thereabouts. It is a joy to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who set the scene incredibly well with her knowledge as a mother. That brings a real example to the debate, but she also spoke on behalf of all the other mothers out there who have to make these difficult decisions. We have had a number of debates in which the Minister has been in a position to respond. I know she grasps these things very well, and I am very hopeful that we will get the answers to our questions.

The cost of living is difficult for so many people, but especially for young families. I am thankful that we have a form of maternity leave in this country, unlike other developed nations such as the United States, which is severely lagging behind. However, if we look at other nations, we can see that we are not so far forward after all.

When my wife Sandra and I married in 1987, we both wanted children and that was our decision—in a different age, let us be quite clear. I had my own business, which meant that I was able to afford that. It ensured that, along with Sandra’s say-so, she could stay at home and look after the children. My three boys have grown up to be wonderful young men. I cannot take any credit for that—my wife can. They are three young men who are established. They have their own wives and two children each. We are very blessed to have that.

As an elected representative, one thing that affects me in the office is when people come along and I can see the pressures of finance. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) mentioned the mortgage issue, and I watched the news last night, Mr McCabe, about the effect of mortgages on people when their tenure comes to an end. I really wonder how people will afford it. Last night’s news illustrated that costs were going from 2.9% to 5.6% as well as the costs that had accumulated over all the years. They are massive! One of the mortgages last night was an accumulation of some £26,000 and the other was an accumulation of £14,000. People cannot just click their fingers and make that money appear. There is no money tree at the bottom of the garden that money can be picked off like leaves—we live in the real world—so I understand the burden that is coming down the road.

There are financial worries when people get that wonderful news—or not so wonderful news, as sometimes happens. That does not change their love for the child, by the way—I make that quite clear. [Interruption.] People are always very pleased. I wanted three boys—my wife was not quite so sure, but there you are. When people’s families expand, there comes the natural worry of how the money will stretch. That was never as true as it is today. We hear stories from the people who come to our constituency offices, tell us about their burdens and troubles, and ask us how they can get help.

I read an article by Smart Cells, which encourages parents to consider the storage of baby stem cells—life is moving on, and there are different ways of doing things and new technology. That article worked out, from independent data sources and research online, that families in the UK spend about £6,000 during the first year of their baby’s life—wow! That will be the price of some people’s new mortgage rate, so that becomes a big problem. That cost is for the mummy who is able to breastfeed. Many do, but those who cannot must add on the cost of milk, sterilising equipment, bottles and so on, and there are endless other costs that can become real burdens.

The Smart Cells budget includes £350 for a year’s worth of clothing. My wife is a grandmother now—we have six grandchildren. The last, Ezra, was born in October, and is now eight months old. He is a lovely wee boy—I do not say that just because he is my grandchild—and we love him greatly. I cannot understand how my son, Luke, and Rachel can find the money to look after Ezra when they already have wee Freya. They wanted two children, but at the end of the day a real burden comes with that.

I believe I am in touch with the normal families in my constituency. My sons are in the baby stage, and I know from them and my wife—Sandra tells me this all the time—about the financial strain they are under. My oldest son, Jamie, told me at the weekend that he had to fix his car. It needed new brakes, a new battery and other work done, and all of a sudden it was £600. That comes out of his month’s wage. His new mortgage rate will have to be paid; that money has to be found. That is where we are. For some, the parents are able to step in—the bank of granny and grandad is sometimes really important in helping with the purchase of a pram or a cot—but for many families, the strain is obvious. The matter of statutory parental leave must be addressed.

Way back in 1987, when Sandra and I got married and our first child arrived, my mother presented us with us with a cot that she had kept. It was the same cot that I was reared in. Nothing is ever thrown out in our house, so we got the benefit of that. We still have it, and we will pass it on to the next generation. That is what Ulster Scots people do: we make good use of what we have.

The rates at which the statutory payments for parental leave are made come in two types. One is 90% of the person’s normal weekly earnings, and one is a flat rate, which is currently £172.48 a week. The payments are at the 90% rate for the first six weeks, followed by whichever is lower of the 90% rate or the flat rate for the remaining 33 weeks. A child benefit entitlement is also paid, which covers the cost of nappies and wipes for many children—never mind the additional heating. You cannot have a cold house for a new baby—it cannot happen. That is not on. There are so many things that people need to have for their baby, and we must understand that. Those extra costs become real issues.

If a family is working, their entitlement to a Healthy Start maternity grant is severely limited. Perhaps the Minister may be able to speak about that, because it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, who set the scene so well. The Government have not upped the earnings brackets in line with inflation, and yet again it appears that those who are hardest hit are those on low incomes. These are changes that must be made—and made soon. If I were to ask the Minister for one thing specifically, it would be to ensure that the Government respond. In that response, I hope that the Minister can give us some encouragement and help. For some women, the thought of returning to work after a year is difficult, while for others staying off for more than their six weeks at 90% is impossible. It is clear that more must be done.

I will give a brief snapshot of some other countries. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned, Bulgaria offers new parents an incredible 410 days of paid leave. We should be matching Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s maternity leave covers 90% of the employee’s salary through social security. All the Scandinavian countries are equally generous when it comes to maternity leave, and Norway is no exception. Norway has a flexible option that allows new mothers to take up to 59 weeks on maternity leave paid at an 80% pay rate, or 49 weeks at full pay. Again, I give those as examples because I think it illustrates what other countries are doing and where they see the need to help. The father can choose to take up to 10 weeks, or no leave at all, depending on the wife’s income.

Those countries seem to accept the importance of enabling family units to learn to be family units at the hardest times. When a crying child enters a home, we know that we have to reach out to help. The pressure on mum and dad is incredible. When the weight of today’s finances is added in, many families cannot take the strain. It is my belief that we in this place must seriously consider our obligations and increase the maternity allowance and the statutory maternity payment for every person. We should not simply accept that those who work in the civil service or in a health trust can take six months off, while the mummy in the local shop, who we see in our office every day, is back to work after six weeks through necessity.

Last night, a lady at home was talking about what would happen if her mortgage changes. She already faces pressures on childcare, and has to take time off from her business for it, which means her income is reduced. There are so many equations in this issue, and we really do need fairness. I support the calls of colleagues in this place for change to be a priority for Government. In the paper last week there was a suggestion of tax relief for those with larger mortgages. Although that may not directly be an issue for the Minister today, if we are going to do something practical, honest and physically helpful for people, let us do that. We should have tax relief for the extra mortgage costs that may come through. If we do that, we will take the pressure off and ensure that people can retain the homes that they have already invested so much in and, at the same time, have their family.

I want to support families. The Government are clear that family is a priority. The Minister has said that before in debates in this House, and I know that others have said it. If that is true, and not simply words, we need to do better. Maternity pay is one such way of doing better by our families, along with childcare help and an increase to the child benefit threshold. We can and must make immediate changes. I look to the Minister to make those necessary steps.

I am very pleased to be part of the debate, and to represent my constituents who asked me to raise these issues. When I noticed that the debate had been scheduled, about a fortnight ago, I had already committed myself to coming here and making the case. We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for setting the scene, and I look forward to what my friend, the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) will say. I know that we are all saying the same thing, and singing from the same hymn sheet. We all look to the Minister for a positive response.