In 2019, I was proud to have played a small part in helping to put in place the first locum MP. This was a huge achievement and a big leap forwards from the introduction of proxy voting, but it was long overdue. The government still seems to be grappling with family-friendly rights.
At present, Ministers have no rights to maternity, paternity or adoption leave. They are not allowed to continue to receive a salary alongside the person providing their maternity cover. There are no fewer than 3 Acts of Parliament which govern limits on ministerial numbers and pay which have previously left limited flexibility to appoint paid cover. This has meant that Ministers needed to resign in order to give birth and care for a newborn.
The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill (which has its second reading in the House of Lords on 22.02.21) is a further small, but welcomed step. It provides for up to 6 months' paid maternity leave:
- for a Minister, subject to certain criteria and at the discretion of the Prime Minister, while allowing them to remain a member of the government.
- for a small number of Opposition office holders. In contrast to arrangements for Ministers, Opposition office holders who are to take maternity leave would stay in post. The Bill authorises a payment to a nominated individual, who, at the discretion of the Leader of the Opposition in the relevant House, covers the office holder’s role
The Bill only applies to a subset of ministerial and Opposition office holders. Secretaries of State and other holders of very senior office are not able to make use of the provisions, owing (it is said) to their constitutional roles and sheer volume and complexity of workloads. This means that they would still need to resign in order to take maternity leave. This thinking is reminiscent of the issues women face in senior roles in the business world, whereas Parliament should be setting the standard.
There are of course challenges around MP's complicated employment status as office holders, but these are not insurmountable. To encourage people of all backgrounds to become MPs, we really must have modern working practices in place, for both women and men. The Bill shines a light on the need for cross-party work for further reform.