Labour has supported a government bill giving ministers longer maternity leave – but the opposition party said the opportunity to make “significant strides forward” on wider rights and protections had been missed.
The party supported the bill this afternoon as the government pushed it through parliament in a single day to ensure that provision will be in place for the attorney general Suella Braverman, who is due to give birth soon.
Opening the debate for the opposition this afternoon, Rachel Reeves told MPs: “We are behind the times when it comes to adopting modern, family-friendly working practices in parliament and in government and change is long overdue.
“I would ask the minister to make a firm commitment to review and explore further potential reforms that can be made on a cross-party basis to ensure that this ‘mother of parliaments’ is a parliament that genuinely welcomes mothers.
“This should be the start, not the end, of a journey by this government to deliver more employment rights and give workers the protections in all work and in all jobs the support they need and deserve.”
The legislation gives the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition powers to award a six-month period of maternity leave with full pay to sitting government ministers and some members of the shadow cabinet.
Shadow minister Cat Smith welcomed the bill. She told MPs today that “employment rights should not end at the doors of parliament”, but she added that it is a “sad fact that so many women across the UK lack these basic rights”.
Smith added: “If we are to create a truly representative parliament, encouraging women from all backgrounds to run for office, then we must start by ensuring that no one is forced to choose between family and running for office.
“But rights and protections for elected women seem to be stuck in a different generation, and I do think it is a scandal that for instance councillors in local government are not guaranteed any rights to take any kind of parental leave.”
She said that debate on the issue of maternity leave has come forward in “baby steps”, and criticised the government for only “acting at the point of emergency” to rush this bill through for one of its cabinet members.
The shadow minister explained to the Commons: “With more lead-in time and perhaps more detailed consultation, this bill could have included the right for paternity leave, adoption and of course premature baby leave.
“Whilst I welcome the government’s commitments to bring about these changes, I am disappointed that we were unable to make these significant strides forward today, and I look forward to working with the government to bringing those about.”
Campaigners and other MPs voiced concerns ahead of the debate that the legislation only extends the paid leave to ministers and shadow cabinet members, excluding other backbenchers and setting up a “two-tier” system of maternity leave.
MPs from across the opposition parties pushed ministers this afternoon to use the bill to make provisions for backbenchers in parliament, as well as for local councillors and representatives of other elected bodies in the UK.
Stella Creasy has threatened legal action in response to the bill. The pregnant Labour MP could take the government to court for discrimination over its intention to give greater rights to ministers than backbench representatives.
She argued today: “This only benefits a very small number of women, and to only benefit a very small number of women at this time in this country’s life is to fail to recognise the peril that potentially comes from this legislation.
“That it is not about the drafting, but the scope, of this legislation. We are sending a message that paternity leave should be a perk conferred by your employer just as a company car would be.”
The bill will also provide much better provisions for ministers than available to the general population and comes two years after the government promised to give greater protections in the employment bill, on which there has been little progress.
“It is disappointing that the government has yet to act on its commitment in its December 2019 Queen’s Speech to strengthen the legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new parents,” Smith said.
“The speed at which the government is acting to make sure that the attorney general can rightly take maternity leave is in stark contrast to its failure to support pregnant women facing discrimination and hardship throughout this pandemic.”
A group of women’s rights organisations, led by the Centenary Action Group, issued a statement this morning arguing that the legislation will “set a precedent of a two-tier system of maternity and paternity rights”.
“The legislation must not be seen in a vacuum but instead as the opportunity for a national call to action to protect parents in the workplace during these difficult times,” the coalition added.
“While it is welcome that government ministers will be given six-months maternity leave on full pay as in line with the civil service, statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance is just £151.20 per week, equivalent to about half of the national minimum wage.”
A parliamentary committee said this week that it was “gravely concerned” by evidence provided to them of “potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave” during the pandemic.
The women and equalities committee report warned the government that support provided during the crisis has been “skewed towards men” and urged it to legislate to extend redundancy protection to cover pregnant women and new mothers.