More than 226,000 people have signed an e-petition started by Jessie Zammit and her husband James Zammit-Garcia that calls for the Government to extend maternity leave by 3 months with pay in light of Covid-19. As welcome support schemes were announced for businesses, for workers and for the self-employed, all of whom were suffering as a result of the unprecedented impact that Covid-19 has had, new and expectant parents found themselves seemingly forgotten. The huge support that Jessie and James’ petition has received, and the many moving stories we have heard from new and expecting parents about the worries that they have as they face a return to the workplace, made it clear that this was an issue that the Government needs to consider as a matter of urgency.
The request from petitioners to extend maternity leave is not a request for some extra time off from work in order to relax at home or go out and enjoy the summer. It is a request for time to do all the things that have been impossible while parents and children have been isolated at home. It is a request for time to adjust back to the realities of working life. It is a request for time to do the things needed to help get life back to normal, including accessing childcare, introducing new babies to families and friends, and attending baby classes. And, it is a request for time to get the support many have missed out on, from health visitors, mental health services, dentists and doctors. The Government’s response to the petition to date has been to turn down these requests for time.
Throughout our inquiry we have heard from parents who are despairing at the Government’s response and who are desperate for good news. We received more than 69,000 responses when we asked petitioners and other members of the public for their experiences and their views on the Government’s response and action that needs to be taken. We have heard from parents finding that their jobs are at risk because they haven’t been able to find childcare, parents whose mental health has been severely affected, and from parents who are desperate for help and support to bring up their children. As we took evidence throughout this inquiry we heard about the importance of nurturing and supporting new parents, and just how critical the first years of a child’s life are. By investing now in our parents and children, we can help to prevent a future crisis.
In this report, we ask the Government to look again at its refusal to grant this extra support, and this extra time for new parents. However, our inquiry has also uncovered many more issues on which we hope the Government will urgently consider further action, with or without an extension to paid parental leave. As the UK gradually exits lockdown and returns to normality, we propose a catch-up fund, similar to that announced for school-age children, to ensure access to formal and informal sources of support and interaction for new parents. We ask that the Government consider extending access to free dental treatment for new mothers, make it easier for parents of babies in neonatal care to access Covid-19 testing to help them spend time with their children, and also consider whether greater protection is needed to ensure people do not lose their jobs as a result of being pregnant or a new parent.
Central to the challenges facing new parents is the uncertainty over access to childcare, whether families or formal providers. We call for the Government to review the provision of childcare to ensure it is sustainable and can be accessed by all who need it, and to provide urgent funding to ensure it can survive during the current pandemic. For expectant mothers required to work, we urge the Government to provide clear guidance on their rights to be suspended on full pay if they can’t work safely. We urge the Government to ensure that pregnant women who were wrongfully put on Statutory Sick Pay or unpaid leave do not lose out on their entitlements to Statutory Maternity Pay and to extend the furlough scheme for pregnant women to support businesses to look after their pregnant employees.
Throughout our inquiry we have been contacted by parents who feel that they are anomalies, their circumstances being missed by the Government. As a result of what we have heard, we are calling on the Government to consider what steps can be taken to ensure self-employed parents are treated fairly, and to end the disparities that adoptive parents and special guardians face when trying to take time to care for children, and to consider the impact on Universal Credit that people face if in receipt of Maternity Allowance.
This report cannot cover every experience and every challenge that new parents are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope that the Government will seriously consider the issues we raise and the experiences of parents that we have highlighted and bring forward the changes that will help new parents grapple with the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown. Parents who are asking for this support are asking that the youngest and most vulnerable in society have the best possible start; that they have time to bond with family members; that they have quality time with their parents without the stress and anxiety that the pandemic has added to our lives; and, that parents have time to find appropriate childcare before they return to work and play their part in rebuilding our economy.
Box 1: Timeline of inquiry
20 April, 4.10pm: Petition opened
21 April, 9.23am: Petition passes 10k signatures
21 April, 7.47pm: Petition reaches 100K signatures
28 April: The Petitions Committee meets and decides to hear oral evidence on this issue
30 April: A Facebook post asking for comments receives 26,000 replies, and a survey sent to petitioners asking them to share their experiences gets 27,000 responses
7 May: The Committee holds its first evidence session, to hear from petitioners and experts
14 May: The Government provides its written response to the Petition
15 May: The Committee surveys parents returning to work and childcare providers, getting a further 16,000 responses
21 May: The Committee holds its second evidence session, to hear from experts on maternal mental health, adoption and childcare
29 May: The Chancellor announces the furlough scheme will close to new entrants after 10 June
9 June: Government announces exemption to furlough closing date for some parents returning from parental leave
11 June: The Committee questions Paul Scully MP on the Government’s response to the petition and other issues around parental leave
6 July: The Committee publishes its report, including recommendations to the Government
Published: 6 July 2020