Ministerial maternity bill passes amid criticism

Harriet Harman said the government should address low maternity pay for all women. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

MPs have voted to give ministers paid maternity leave for the first time, but the bill has been criticised for excluding backbench MPs and for giving no mention to paternity leave.

MPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of passing the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill yesterday, which will give cabinet members the right to six months’ maternity leave on full pay while their duties are temporarily covered by another person.

But two Labour MPs criticised the exclusion of backbench MPs, who are able to take maternity leave but have no guarantee that their responsibilities in their constituency will be covered in their absence.

Stella Creasy has said she is prepared to take legal action, suggesting that offering enhanced protections to cabinet ministers is a form of direct discrimination, while Feryal Clark, who is due to give birth at the end of April, said she was “scared about taking informal maternity leave”.

“I’m scared that it will be used against me politically, and most depressing of all, I’m scared that beneath the warm words of ‘good luck’ and ‘congratulations’ some members will take a dim view of my taking of maternity leave at all,” Clark said.

Creasy told MPs: “I am early on in my pregnancy, I shouldn’t have to reveal that, but I am doing that today to be very clear to pregnant women around this country that they will find champions in this place, that it is not enough that we only act for that small group of women at the top of our society. We must act for every woman to be able to have maternity leave.”

Address maternity rights for all women

Labour MP Harriet Harman said the government should now act to address low statutory maternity pay and the “completely wrong situation for the rest of the women in the country”.

“Statutory maternity pay is only £152 per week and at that it is less than half of what you would get on the national minimum wage – so her income is clobbered just when she needs to be spending more. Honestly, if men had babies, do we really think that maternity pay would be so insultingly low? Not a chance,” said Harman.

Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities select committee, welcomed the bill but was disappointed that such rights had not been considered earlier. She said: “What a mess that it is well into the 21st century before we have had to face this situation. And why oh why did it cross nobody’s mind that we might need to address this prior to it having the urgency it now does?”

“Is it really that unthinkable that a secretary of state or one of the law officers could become, heavens above, pregnant?”

Numerous MPs said they did not agree with the language used in the bill – particularly the use of the word “person”, which is at odds with other legislation covering maternity rights and protections, which refers to “women” specifically.

Conservative MP and paymaster general Penny Mordaunt said male MPs may want to take more than the two weeks statutory paternity leave, and the government “will consider this as part of our further work”.

The bill is being rushed though in order to allow the attorney general, Suella Braverman, to take maternity leave. It will now undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords.

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