Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 306691 relating to the impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to be able once again to hold Westminster Hall debates—I am very grateful to all the House staff who have worked incredibly hard to make it possible. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber is not a true reflection of the level of concern about the issue or interest in speaking in the debate, but there are restrictions to maintain social distancing.
There is no doubt, however, about the level of interest in and concern about the impact of the pandemic on new mums, new families and their babies. In a matter of weeks, almost a quarter of a million people signed the petition, which calls for maternity leave to be extended for a further three months. The powerful argument made by the petition is that the additional months would make up for the crucial time that parents have lost during the pandemic and lockdown, when they have been isolated from support networks that are vital for a baby’s development. It would also alleviate some of their anxiety about having to find appropriate childcare and make arrangements to return to work when not only their own world, but the world at large has been turned upside down.
Becoming a parent can be overwhelming. No matter how well or easily a new parent adjusts, it is rarely quite how they imagined it. It is not only the physical changes, such as the impact of the birth itself, but the emotional, hormonal and sleep-deprived journey, that can take an enormous toll on new parents. One thing is for sure: life will never go back to how it was before. Add to that bringing new life into the world in the middle of a pandemic, and there is a clear case for giving new parents at least some more time, if not a whole range of additional support.
The huge support for this petition sparked an inquiry by the Petitions Committee, which I have the privilege to chair. Over the course of the inquiry, almost 70,000 people shared their experiences with us. We held online evidence sessions with expert witnesses, including psychologists, health visitors, childcare sector experts and new parents. I pay tribute to the brave and powerful contributors to our inquiry, to our lead petitioners James and Jessie, parents to baby Elliot, and to Bethany, mum to baby Jayden. I have huge admiration for those new parents who have not only faced significant challenges themselves but have fought to get the help that they and parents up and down the country need.
The message that emerged from our Committee’s inquiry was clear: the impact of this pandemic on new parents has been profound, and a failure to act now risks impacting the mental and physical health and wellbeing not just of new parents in the immediate term but of their babies in the long term. We were told in stark terms that we are the first generation of legislators to know about the impact of maternal mental health on the development of children. We therefore have no excuse not to act.
Many new parents want an extension of paid parental leave to give them time to find adequate childcare and settle their babies for their return to work. In many cases, previously arranged childcare or support from relatives is just not an option. We know that new mothers are at a much greater risk of discrimination and redundancy in normal times, but as we face the seismic economic impact of this pandemic, those risks will become greater.
Therefore, in July our Committee published a report not just recommending the core ask of the petition but making no fewer than 23 recommendations to the Government. Each sensible, constructive and deliverable suggestion was designed to lessen the impact of the crisis on new parents. As well as extending maternity leave, we called on the Government to extend access to free dental care, capture more data on the uptake of parental leave, extend the furlough scheme to include all pregnant women, amend the self-employment income support scheme, update the Government discussions with the baby group sector, fund and provide additional catch-up support, increase health visitor services, provide neonatal leave, pay and rapid testing, conduct an urgent review into childcare and a longer-term independent review, provide redundancy protection for new mums, extend the period for bringing an employment tribunal claim, extend adoption leave and pay, and provide support for special guardians.
Despite the urgency, it was not until September that the Government responded, and it was an extremely disappointing response. Almost every one of our recommendations was rejected. The Government agreed to provide an update on discussion with the baby group sector and hold a discussion meeting with the groups to understand how parents could be supported to return to work. That was the only ask that the Government agreed to. In rejecting our evidenced, reasonable and deliverable recommendations, they demonstrated a failure to understand the deep anxiety of mothers and fathers across the country, and a failure to follow the science.
At People’s PMQs on 10 July, new mum Bethany Jade did an excellent job of putting this issue to the Prime Minister, who promised that he would take a look at our report. Fast forward to September, and I raised it again with the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee, but he had clearly made no further effort to follow Bethany Jade’s request. The fact that he is a new father during this pandemic makes me wonder how none of this resonated more.
The case is told most powerfully by new parents themselves. Petitioner Bethany Power said:
“I am in shock of the Government’s dismissal.”
“Mums and babies don’t matter to this Government. It’s more important that people can play golf or get a pint.”
“One of the things that I have found hardest and most distressing about this time has been the lack of contact with family and friends. I have seen my family twice this year due to the lockdown and restrictions in place and so have missed this support.”
“I spent the whole of my third trimester unable to see my family, prepare for my birth as antenatal classes were cancelled, go to shops to buy essentials and uncertain if my husband would be allowed into the birth of our first child. This caused a huge amount of distress for me and effected my mental health”.
“Discriminated against and forgotten about. Not even an extension to free dental care that we can’t access.”
Testimony from the sector has come in thick and fast. On the Government’s claim that the UK’s maternity offer is generous, Emily Tredget from Happity said:
“Whilst it is amongst the longest, it is sadly lacking in terms of financial support, actually being one of the worst in the developed world.”
On protecting pregnant women in the workplace:
“Daily I see women asking for advice after tricky discussions with HR where they’ve been told that childcare isn’t the problem of the employer, or that they can’t go onto unpaid leave and so are forced to resign.”
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who I am pleased is with us today, has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on the issue, which reinforces cross-party support. Will the Government urgently review their approach and bring forward a clear timetable for these planned reforms to be implemented? Women need protection now.
Health visitor services were already stretched before the pandemic and now some have reportedly been forced to care for up to 2,400 families with newborns at a time, which is 10-times the recommended number. Mary Renfrew, professor of mother and infant health at the University of Dundee, has warned:
“Taking resources away from maternity care doesn’t make sense because we know that will create long-term harm.”
Will the Minister commit today to urgently reviewing health visitor provision, in light of the clear evidence that the services are overwhelmed?
On the challenges faced by baby and toddler groups, the First 1001 Days Movement said that the Government’s response
“shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of parent and baby groups.”
The Government continue to fail to listen and their response, published today, claims that there is a “wealth” of Government guidance available, but the sector has said repeatedly that this guidance is not clear enough. Many groups are struggling to reopen, as venues and insurers interpret the guidance differently. Will the Government recognise the problem and make simple changes to the language, as suggested in both our correspondence and by representatives of the sector, to provide much-needed clarity to a sector they have acknowledged is important to parents?
On access to childcare, Maternity Action has said:
“Since March, the Government has rightly spent unprecedented sums to support employment. However, if it does not take urgent action to shore up the childcare sector and enable parents, particularly mothers, to return to work, much of that investment will be wasted… Four in ten working mothers with young children cannot get… enough childcare to cover their working hours.”
Will the Government take another look at this and recognise the challenges that is causing for many working parents across the country?
Even neonatal leave, an existing policy commitment and one that we recommended should be piloted now, was rejected. The charity Bliss has said:
“Research shows families are struggling with the practicalities of having a sick baby alongside job insecurity and restricted finances, and that extra support is desperately needed.”
In conclusion, it has been almost six months since the petition started and many new parents have passed the point at which their maternity entitlement has come to an end. Is the Government’s strategy just to wait the situation out? In the spring, lockdown placed a huge strain on people and local restrictions are causing many to worry that we are heading for more of the same. An ever-growing cohort of new parents have been left without support at a crucial time in their and their babies’ lives. There are many practical and realistic steps, as set out in our Committee’s report, that the Government could take to support new parents. To date, we have heard many warm words from Ministers, but these will not provide parents with the support they need.
There is a long-established principle that, even in good times, a blanket of support is wrapped around new mums and their babies. That is why we have maternity leave, health visitors, post-partum mental health support and a period of free dentistry, to mention just a few. There is a clear evidence base for that. It not only supports and protects new mothers at a time of increased vulnerability, but it protects their baby too. If we believe that giving the best start in life to every baby matters, that matters during the pandemic too.
It is not good enough to say that we are all in this together, when we know that some people are affected much more than others. New mums are clearly hugely affected by this pandemic, and the consequences could last for generations. They have stepped up to the plate. It is time the Government did their part too.