‘It’s not good enough just to say we are all in this together – new mums need support’

Newcastle North MP, Catherine McKinnell, has today led a petitions debate in Parliament to urge the Government to step up to the plate to support new parents.

Speaking in Westminster Hall, in the first petitions debate since the pandemic, Catherine said: 

“It has been almost six months since this petition started and many new parents have passed the point where their maternity entitlement has come to an end. Is that the Government’s strategy – just to wait the situation out?

“Lockdown in the Spring placed a huge strain and new local restrictions is causing many to worry that we are heading for more of the same. An ever-growing cohort of new parents left without support at such a crucial time in their and their babies’ lives.

“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.

“To date we have heard many warm words from ministers, but these won’t provide new parents with the support they need during this crisis.

“It’s not good enough just to say we are all in this together, when we know that some people are affected more than others.”

Watch Catherine’s full speech introducing the debate here.

 

The debate follows a parliamentary petition signed by almost a quarter of a million people, calling on the Government to extend maternity leave by three months with pay in light of COVID-19.

The Petitions Committee, which Catherine chairs, led an inquiry into the issue and published a landmark report on the impact of COVID-19 on maternity and parental leave in July.

The report was the result of an intensive inquiry, which heard from mental health and psychology experts, representatives from the childcare sector, and over 27,000 new parents. The investigation revealed an urgent need for the Government to review how new parents are supported during the crisis after almost a quarter of a million petitioners raised concerns about the dangerous impact the pandemic is having on their children’s development and their own mental health.

The Government response to the report rejected most of the recommendations of the Petitions Committee, stating “we believe that, for the vast majority of parents, the current arrangements have been sufficiently generous to cater for the variety of circumstances that new parents have found themselves in as a result of the pandemic.”

 

Full text of Catherine’s speech: ***Check Against Delivery***

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 306691 relating to the impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave.

Introduction

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, and to be able to hold debates once again in Westminster Hall. I’m grateful to all the House Staff who have worked to ensure this is possible.

I wanted to say first of all that the number of Members who are able to participate in this debate is not a true reflection of the level of concern on this issue.

There are understandable restrictions to the number of members who are physically able to be present due to the importance of maintaining social distancing, and there are also a number of shielding MPs who would like to participate remotely, but that hasn’t been made possible.

I therefore urge the Government to do what it can to facilitate greater remote participation, particularly in these Westminster Hall debates.

Importance of this Debate

What there is no doubt about is the level of interest in and concern about the impact of this pandemic on new mums, new families, and their babies.

In a matter of weeks, almost a quarter of a million people signed this petition calling for maternity leave to be extended for a further 3 months.

The powerful argument being that the additional months would make up for crucial time parents have lost during the pandemic and lockdown, isolated from support networks which are vital for a new baby’s development. It would also alleviate some of the anxiety about having to find appropriate childcare and make arrangements to return to work when not only your own world, but also the world at large, has been completely turned upside down.

Becoming a parent can be overwhelming. No matter how well or easily a new parent adjusts, it is rarely quite how you imagined it.

It’s 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 for sure is that life will never go back to being 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 too.

Our Inquiry

The huge support for this petition sparked an inquiry by the Petitions Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, and over the course of the inquiry almost 70 thousand people shared their experience with us.

We held online evidence sessions, with expert witnesses from psychologists to health visitors, to childcare sector experts and new parents themselves.

I want to pay tribute to the brave and powerful contributors to our inquiry. To our lead petitioners, James and Jessie, parents to baby Elliot. And also 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 not only they need but new parents up and down the country need too.

The message that emerged from our committee’s inquiry was clear.

The specific 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 of not just new parents in the immediate term, but also their babies for the long term.

We were told in stark terms that we are the first generation of legislators to know the impact of maternal mental health on the development of children. We therefore have no excuse not to act.

Many new parents want to see 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 simply no longer an option.

We know that new mothers are at much greater risk of discrimination and redundancy in normal times, but as we face the seismic economic impact of this pandemic, we know those risks will become greater.

Our recommendations

Therefore, in July our Committee published a report not just recommending the core ask of the petition, but making no less than 23 recommendations to government.

Each sensible, constructive and deliverable suggestion designed to lessen the impact of the crisis on new parents.

As well as extending maternity leave, we called for:

–           Improved guidance for new mothers and their employers;

–           extending access to free dental care;

–           capturing more data on uptake of parental leave;

–           Extending the furlough scheme to include all pregnant women;

–           Regarding Maternity Allowance as earnings and amend Statutory Maternity Pay calculations;

–           Amending the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme;

–           Updating on government discussions with the baby group sector;

–           Funding and providing additional catch-up support;

–           Increased health visitor services;

–           Neonatal leave, pay and rapid testing;

–           An urgent review into childcare and a longer term independent review;

–           Redundancy protection for new mums;

–           Extend the period for bringing an employment tribunal claim; and

–           Adoption leave and pay to be extended and support for special guardians. 

Despite the urgency, it wasn’t until September that the Government eventually responded.

And what an extremely disappointing response it was with almost every one of our recommendations rejected.

The Government agreed to provide an update on discussions with the baby group sector and to hold a discussion meeting with the groups to understand how parents could be supported to return to work. That was the only ask the Government agreed to after 2 months of sitting on our report.

In rejecting our evidenced, reasonable and deliverable recommendations they demonstrated a complete failure to understand the deep anxiety of mothers and fathers across the country, and a failure to follow the science.

People’s PMQs

At People’s PMQs on 10 July, new mum Bethany Jade did an excellent job putting this issue to the Prime Minister who promised he would take a look of the report.

Fast forward to September when I raised it again at the Liaison Committee hearing with the PM and he’d clearly made no further effort to follow Bethany’s request.

As a new father himself during this pandemic, it does make you wonder how none of this resonates. 

Testimony from new parents

I believe the case for this is told most powerfully by the new parents themselves.

Petitioner Bethany Power said: “I am in shock of the Governments dismissal.”

Tiana said – “Mums and babies don’t matter to this Government. It’s more important that people can play golf or get a pint.”

Charlotte – “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.”

Sarah – “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 affected my mental health”

Liz said – “Discriminated against and forgotten about. Not even an extension to free dental care that we can’t access.”

Testimony from the sector

Across the sector of organisations working with new parents, there is deep concern too:

  • 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 Honourable Member for Basingstoke, who I’m pleased joins us today, has introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill on this issue, reinforcing cross party support for this. Will the Government urgently review its approach and bring forward a clear timetable for these planned reforms to be implemented to give women the protection they need now?

  • Health visitor services were already stretched before the pandemic and now reportedly some have been forced to care for up to 2,400 families with newborns at a time, 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 services are overwhelmed?

  • On the challenges faced by parent and baby groups, The First 1001 Days Movement say the Government’s response “shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of parent and baby groups”.

The government continues to fail to listen and a Government response published today continues to claim there is “a wealth of Government guidance available.” But the sector has said repeatedly this guidance is not clear enough, and many groups are struggling to reopen as venues and insurers interpret the guidance differently. Will the Government recognise this problem and make simple changes to the language, as suggested both by our correspondence and by representatives of the sector, to provide much needed clarity to a sector the Government has acknowledged is important to parents?

  • On access to childcare, Maternity Action have 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 it is causing for many working parents across the country?

  • Even neonatal leave – an existing policy commitment and one we recommended could be piloted now – was rejected. The charity Bliss say: “Research shows families are struggling with the practicalities of having sick baby alongside job insecurity and restricted finances, and that extra support is desperately needed.”

Conclusion

It has been almost six months since this petition started and many new parents have passed the point where their maternity entitlement has come to an end. Is that the Government’s strategy – just to wait the situation out?

Lockdown in the Spring placed a huge strain and new local restrictions is causing many to worry that we are heading for more of the same. An ever-growing cohort of new parents left without support at such a crucial time in their and their babies’ lives.

There are many practical and realistic steps – as set out in our committee report – that the Government could take to support new parents.

To date we have heard many warm words from ministers, but these won’t provide new parents with the support they need during this crisis.

There is a long-established principle that – even in good times – a blanket of support is wrapped around new mum’s 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 this. It not only supports and protects a new mother at a time of increased vulnerability, but also protects their baby too. If we believe that giving the best start in life to every baby matters, they need to be supported during this pandemic too.

It’s not good enough just to say we are all in this together, when we know that some people are affected 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’s time the Government did its part too.