When will ministers care about the needs of mothers?

11th February 2021: Hurray! Ministers get maternity leave. But what about the rest of us? 

The ‘Braverman Bill’ is being rushed through Parliament to give six months of fully paid maternity leave to the Attorney General. Joeli Brearley asks what kind of message does this send to the thousands of pregnant women and mothers struggling through the pandemic?[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]Today, the Government will pass an emergency bill which will ensure the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, has access to six months of maternity leave on full pay. The bill comes just two days after the Women and Equalities Select Committee published their report into the gendered impact of Covid19. The report details all the ways women, especially pregnant women and mothers, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and it highlights how gender-blind policy-making has had a negative impact on women. From safety issues and a reduction in income to targeted redundancies and a childcare system that is on the brink of collapse. I like to imagine Boris Johnson settling in for the evening with a copy, for it is quite the read. It culminates in a group of cross-party MPs, led by former Conservative minister Caroline Nokes, making 20 recommendations on what the government should do right now to address the disparities. Ms Nokes concluded in a tweet that the Government is ‘forgetting women’. But could the ‘Braverman Bill’ help to repair that damage and show that the Government really does care about the nation’s mothers?

We know that pregnant women and new mothers are dropping out of the workforce en masse. This is supported by data from the Office of National Statistics which shows that the highest percentage of job losses is among women aged between 25 -34 years; the age when women get pregnant and have young children. In fact, this age group were 60% more likely to have become unemployed in August and October compared to men aged between 35 – 49 years. The government has had plenty of chances to reduce this mass exodus of women from the workforce, but they have failed to act. 

Many of these opportunities to broaden access to work for women or to protect their jobs have come from within its own party. In 2019, Helen Whately presented a bill backed by Pregnant Then Screwed, to make all jobs flexible by default. It languishes somewhere in a digital store cupboard, archived into obscurity, never making it beyond its first reading. Then last July, Maria Miller’s pregnancy and maternity redundancy protection bill was first presented to parliament, again with our support. That bill was in response to the Government’s commitment in January 2017 to strengthen the legal protections against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents; it would mean that they could only be made redundant in exceptional circumstances. Its first reading came at a time when pregnant women and mothers were being made redundant in their droves. The government had a choice then; it could have adopted that bill as its own and protected the jobs of thousands of women or it could choose to preside over a generational rollback in maternal employment. It chose the latter, and the Women and Equalities Select Committee report has borne witness to that.

But it’s not just in policy-making that the government has failed mothers. It’s also in its messaging. During the first lockdown, Boris Johnson was asked by Keir Starmer what families should do if their employer expected them to work as normal during school and childcare closures. The Prime Minister’s response was that employers should be ‘understanding’. Perhaps sensing the palpable frustration of the nation’s parents, the Prime Minister issued an open letter in January where he thanked parents for the ‘great job’ they were doing. Nice words but sentiments such as understanding and gratitude do little to pay the bills. What does help to pay the bills is furlough pay. Yet not only has the government declined to make shared furlough for childcare a temporary legal right, the PM’s open letter didn’t even mention the existing right to request it. A perfect opportunity to encourage employers to use the Job Retention Scheme to support parents, and it was waived in favour of…thanks. 

Of course, this wasn’t just an issue in lockdown, parents have been dealing with childcare challenges for almost a year now as class and group bubbles burst with Covid cases. Many a parent came to dread ‘the phone call’ from school or nursery informing them their child would have to self-isolate until a negative test could be secured. A phone call that brought with it anxiety and, quite often, a loss of pay. 

Throughout the pandemic, other countries managed to find better solutions for families. France rushed through an emergency measure to allow parents who can’t find child care to receive full pay while staying home with children who must quarantine. Meanwhile, the Australian Government invested $305.6 million in their childcare sector to ensure it could remain open and to relieve some of the financial pressure on working parents. Germany gave parents 10 days of paid leave and single parents 20 days of paid leave to help them manage their professional and personal responsibilities.

But meanwhile, here in the UK, the only legislation enacted by our government to support pregnant women and mums is the ‘Braverman Bill’ which gives six months fully paid maternity leave to ministers. Don’t get me wrong, this bill is a step in the right direction; ministers should absolutely have access to paid maternity leave and it is quite insane that it has taken this long for it to be granted. But the bill is woefully lacking. To start with it only gives paid maternity leave to ministers, ignoring the needs of backbenchers and other parliamentary staff. We’ve spent years working with Stella Creasy to secure maternity and paternity leave for MPs, a move that would help to achieve a 50:50 Parliament, attracting and keeping more women in politics. Repeatedly the government insisted that reforming maternity rights would take time, yet here we are seeing them rush through a bill that would give one of their own ministers six months of fully paid leave. 

And what of the timing? Suella Braverman’s baby is due at the end of this month, and now this is being rushed through, as if bringing children into the world was some afterthought, and not, you know, the premise on which humanity’s existence depends. What sort of message does all of this send to the thousands of women pushed out of their jobs for daring to procreate? What is the message to all the women living in financial poverty because statutory maternity pay is £151 a week and not full pay? Or to the women giving up jobs because a government refuses to protect their pay while they care for, educate and raise the next generation of workers, and voters – a fact this government forgets at its own peril. Could the message be ‘to hell with the rest of you’? Because that is exactly how it feels. 


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