The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave Contents

8Childcare and returning to work

94.We heard from thousands of new parents through our public engagement on this inquiry, and they shared with us a huge number of different reasons for wanting to extend their maternity leave, many of which were interrelated. One thing that was apparent from the responses we received to our survey was that people hadn’t signed this petition simply because they want to stay on leave longer—in many cases the childcare options were simply not there to allow women to return to work as they had planned, and that a return date was looming without any realistic solutions being available.167

The importance of childcare

95.Quality, affordable childcare has many of the same economic benefits as generous parental benefits: helping keep parents in the workforce; contributing to GDP; reducing the gender pay gap; and reducing benefit spending. In 2014, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that a five percentage-point increase to the maternal employment rate could generate £750 million a year in benefit savings and tax revenue.168 Enrolment in formal childcare and early education settings is also associated with better outcomes for children and can help to reduce educational inequalities in the longer term.169 While it is clearly important for the economy and wider society, it is also vital to the individuals that use it, as demonstrated by this response to our survey:

I was an NHS employee so could not be furloughed, but my local nursery is closed and grandparents who were due to look after my daughter are currently unable to do so due to lockdown rules, so I had to resign.170

The importance of childcare has been acknowledged by the Government at the highest levels. At the Liaison Committee’s evidence session with the Prime Minister on 27 May 2020, the Prime Minister recognised that “childcare is absolutely critical for the success of our economy” and said that “we will do whatever it takes to help women to get back into work.”171

96.Childcare is a personal choice for parents, and many use a combination of childcare options rather than simply relying on one, for reasons including availability and cost. When we asked petitioners which childcare options they were planning to use before the pandemic, the two most popular options were nurseries and relatives. Both options have been severely curtailed by the lockdown, and many said they were now considering other providers, such as childminders or au pairs. 78% of respondents told us they had not been able to arrange suitable childcare at the time of the survey, and 81% told us they were considering delaying their return to work.172

Nurseries and childminders

Crisis in funding and availability

97.Both local authority and privately-run nurseries were a popular choice for childcare before the lockdown. Many of the parents we spoke to would still like to use them, but have either already had to delay their return to work due to their closure, or expressed anxiety about the availability of nursery places.173 This anxiety seems to be well founded, and is not solely linked to Covid-19. The Coram Group, which brings together charities that support children and young people from birth to independence, told us:

Even before the Covid 19 pandemic, there were persistent shortages in the availability of childcare. In Coram Family and Childcare’s Childcare Survey 2020, it was reported that only just over half of local areas had enough childcare for parents working full time and the shortages were more acute for disabled children and parents working outside of the typical 9 to 5 day, where only a quarter of local areas had enough childcare to meet demand. There were fewer childcare places available in deprived areas, particularly settings providing full daycare that enabled parents to work.174

98.We scheduled a debate on a petition relating to childcare as the first petitions debate of this Parliament.175 In the public engagement we conducted to inform the debate, we heard how waiting lists were up to six months for nursery places, with some parents saying that the waiting lists for baby rooms could be over one year.176 Statistics from Ofsted show that between April 2018 and March 2019, more than 500 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders closed every month in England.177 A survey from the Early Years Alliance in April this year found that:

25% of respondents felt that it was ‘somewhat unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ that they would be operating in 12 months’ time; and

74% of respondents said that the government hasn’t provided enough support for early years providers during the coronavirus crisis.178

Neil Leitch, the Chief Executive of the Early Years Alliance, warned:

they may well have closed where they are needed most, and by that I mean in the most disadvantaged areas.179

99.Funding for early years settings has been the subject of inquiries by the House of Commons Treasury and Education Committees, as well as the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Childcare and Early Education in recent years.180 What we heard many times from respondents to our survey was that the existing problems have been compounded by the pandemic, and have pushed many providers to breaking point.181 The challenges of operating under social distancing would make many financially unviable without Government intervention. Providers told us:

We tried to stay open for key workers but lost £1k per week and had to close. Our furlough costs aren’t being met and our fixes costs are accruing debt with little income. We may struggle to reopen with the costs of preparing and reduced attendance.

Opening up and paying all bills with limited children will probably bankrupt us.

We were closed by the government with no notice. We had no LA support to stay open, there were no ‘hubs’ there was no PPE. Our insurance did not pay out. Our furlough was affected by early years funding (still fees, because childcare was never free.) Our funding was then taken from us. We received less than a third of what was due to us, despite the whole figure used against our furlough claim. I had to get a loan to survive. I may have to let staff go, and the business may not survive.182

100.Another e-petition calling for emergency funding for the nursery sector has also received over 100,000 signatures.183 In its response to that petition, the Government noted the various existing schemes to which nurseries could apply or were eligible, such as the CJRS, business rates relief, and associated small business grant funding. We heard however, from many respondents to our survey that funding available for nurseries, and the guidance around it, appears to have been both patchy and complex, which has meant many childcare providers have found it difficult or impossible to access support. Many reported issues such as furloughing staff and then later finding out only a lower percentage of wages could be recovered, and confusion about the continuation of payments for funded places. We also heard that the extra funding available to schools for cleaning and PPE was not available to nurseries, and that finding this money would add to existing shortfalls.

Reopening, health concerns and separation anxiety

101.Since schools have begun to reopen, images of pupils obediently lining up in single file to march into their socially distanced classrooms and sit at their single desks have demonstrated the new reality of educational settings. However, these approaches are not feasible for early years settings. As one provider who responded to our survey on nurseries told us:

Babies and toddlers put everything in their mouths and that is a natural part of their development. Every day I come home from nursery covered in saliva and snot from the babies I care for in my room and that is usually fine, but not when that saliva and snot could be carrying coronavirus that could kill me or my family when I walk it through my front door.184

The Government’s guidance for providers reopening from 1 June has sought to reflect this. Instead of striving to maintain distance at all times, providers have been encouraged to use ‘bubbles’ instead, with small groups of children in different areas where possible.185 While some of the providers we spoke to welcomed this approach, it left many with few options.186 Large nurseries might be expected to cope better, with more staff and multiple rooms in which to create these bubbles, but smaller settings and childminders reported that this simply wouldn’t be possible. Some also noted that it would be achievable whilst numbers were low with many parents still at home, but in order to return to anything approaching normal capacity these measures could not be followed. On the small financial margins on which they already existed, most settings said they needed to return to full capacity in order to be financially viable.187 Any loss of places from pre-pandemic figures will place extra strain on an already scarce resource.

102.In order to go back to work, new parents able to access childcare providers are having to leave their children in an unfamiliar setting, often for the first time. Parents reported to us that with the additional perceived health risks they were simply unwilling to do this. Some were worried their child may contract the virus in a nursery, whilst others said that their own jobs meant there was a chance their child could give it to others.188 The risk to babies and younger children themselves is reported to be low, but as there is limited understanding of their roles as carriers of the virus, some parents worry that children’s attendance at nurseries could increase transmission and put vulnerable relatives at risk. As one parent told us:

I will not be wanting my child to be attending nursery for two reasons, he will be mixing with other children who could be carriers, but also I will be working for the NHS and potentially be a carrier myself and would not want him to be taking it to the nursery either.189

103.When choosing a nursery or childminder, parents will understandably want to look at as many as they can and visit in person. Usually when a baby or toddler starts nursery or meets a new childminder, providers will arrange ‘settling-in sessions’, shorter periods with parents present, in order to familiarise children with new people and places. Neither visits nor settling-in sessions have been available to most during lockdown. In our survey, 90% of childcare workers said these sessions were important or very important, both for babies and for their parents. One childminder reported that:

The first visits and settling sessions are crucial to the child-setting-parent relationship. Parents will naturally be more cautious about going to a new setting. Mine is a home from home childminding setting, so I don’t think I am likely to have any new starters for a long time, due to the restrictions of social distancing.190

104.Separation anxiety was a concern for many of the parents we spoke to, who felt it would be more severe due to babies’ limited interactions with others during lockdown, and not being able to gradually introduce them to settings as they usually would.191 With the added health anxieties of the pandemic and the pressures a lot of parents are under at the moment, it is not surprising that the idea of leaving their babies with strangers is daunting for some, as demonstrated by this response to our survey of new mothers:

She has had no opportunity to socialise with other people and has never met another baby. I worry very much about her wellbeing thrust into this unfamiliar and busy environment being used to only being in our home with me. It would be noisy and terrifying for her. How could I leave her there? I won’t be using childcare until I know she is confident.192

In written evidence to us, the First 1001 Days Movement told us:

Entering childcare for the first time can be a difficult and stressful time for children as a result of separation from their parents, and unfamiliar places, routines and people. This is particularly true for infants and toddlers who rely so heavily on their primary caregivers. The stress of separation might be exacerbated for babies after lockdown because they have spent an extended period with their parents. Families and providers must have time to support babies and toddlers through the transition into childcare, enabling children to adjust to new people and relationships, and allowing carers to spend time with parents to understand babies and their needs.193

105.The combination of the existing funding problems within the sector, and the acute challenges faced by early years settings due to several months of closure and reopening under reduced capacities all lead to one likely scenario—a crisis in the availability of childcare places, which will ultimately prevent many parents, in reality mostly mothers, from returning to work. On top of this, many are dreading having to make decisions about childcare settings without having been able to visit them in person, and may face increased separation anxiety, compounded by policies such as ‘drop at the door’.194

Grandparents and other childcare options

106.As well as formal and paid settings, many rely on family and friends for some or all of their childcare—68% of respondents to our survey said this was their main source of childcare—and whilst the financial pressures may not be the same, these options have still been impacted by the lockdown. Those who rely on grandparents or other relatives suddenly found this childcare option removed when following lockdown rules, and for many with health conditions that place them in the shielding category it remains unclear if or when they will be able to resume this care. Until revised guidance was announced on 23 June, those under 70 and without underlying health conditions were prevented from visiting inside the homes of others apart from in the limited ‘support bubble’ scenario, and there is no explicit exception from social distancing guidance on providing this childcare, despite formal settings such as nurseries being allowed to reopen .195 This has had a huge impact on the ability of new babies to spend time with their wider family, as shown by this response to our survey:

He only met his grandparents a few times before social distancing started and has never met most other family members or close friends. These are the people who’ll be spending time with him and looking after him when he’s older, I want him to get to know them and be comfortable with them.196

Many parents expressed concerns that babies had missed vital socialisation during lockdown, and may have separation anxiety when family and friends could start or resume their childcare:

My baby hasn’t seen any relatives or friends for weeks and weeks now. He’s 10 months and I’m due back to work in August. I worry about how I will be able to leave him with family when I return to work. He won’t know anyone, or know where he is. I don’t think he will settle with anyone. Also, my relative is in the high-risk group so I might not even have any childcare. 3 extra months off would give me chance to find alternative childcare and socialise him when lockdown is eased.197

Professor Elizabeth Meins, a developmental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of York, told us that babies were “highly adaptable”, and that the effects of this missed socialisation may not be as profound as some feared.198 As lockdown is lifted and some limited outdoor family visiting can resume, some of these concerns should start to dissipate and parents may feel more comfortable in future about leaving their children in childcare to return to work.

107.Even when the legal restrictions are removed, many grandparents may have underlying health conditions and parents may be unwilling to put them at risk in this way for some time. As some parents choose family childcare as they find the cost of other settings prohibitive, this will remain a barrier to parents returning to work. Several parents reported looking at options such as nannies and au pairs, although the availability of these also remains unclear.

I am unable to use grandparents because of shielding. We may not be able to afford private nursery now. So we are looking into a nanny type option for both children because it will be cheaper.199

Some parents have reported no other options but to take unpaid leave that they cannot really afford or to leave their jobs entirely, in order to care for their children.200 This would be a disaster for the progress made on the gender pay gap, which already increases after the arrival of children, as it will likely be women making this sacrifice in the majority of cases.201 It will also deprive businesses of experienced workers as they strive to recover from the pandemic, and may set back parents in their careers for years to come. As one new mother told us:

You want to know that when you are at work that your baby is happy and safe. Being able to introduce different settings and different people to babies at a young age is a vital part of this reassurance to you the mother. Given the current situation I fear that I may have no other choice but to not to return to a career that I thoroughly enjoy and have worked so hard to achieve. Whilst I appreciate the government has done the furlough scheme, again women on maternity leave have been given the short straw. SMP is appalling especially compared to how much other people are currently being paid whilst also being at home at this current time.202

108.We have heard about systemic problems in the funding of childcare before the pandemic. Just before the outbreak, we debated a petition which expressed concerns about how many parents struggled to afford childcare. Covid-19 has put a huge strain on the childcare sector at the same time as highlighting how crucial it is for the country and economy. A lot of parents have had to change childcare plans or are unable to access childcare given the reduced capacity of the sector. These parents need to be supported in the short term to allow them to keep their jobs, while doing the most important job of all: caring for their children. To meet these challenges, both immediate and systemic, the Government should:

i)Conduct an urgent short-term review of funding for the childcare sector to ensure that it survives the current crisis, and if required, provide emergency funding to the childcare sector to ensure that there are sufficient childcare places for parents due to return to work.

ii)Consider an independent review of childcare provision, including the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, to ensure that future Government funding is effective and that the sector is sustainable and works for all in the long term.

Returning to work

109.At Prime Minister’s Questions on 13 May, responding to a question on parents with childcare difficulties who are being asked to return to work, the Prime Minister said that “employers must be understanding.”203 Paul Scully, the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets agreed in evidence to us that “a good employer will be flexible, will invest in people and will understand that people are right at the centre of what most businesses do”.204 While many employers undoubtedly will be showing as much flexibility as they can to help parents navigate this period, many others will not.

110.Responding to our survey about delaying their return to work, 20% of new parents told us their employer had offered them some options, although these were mostly unpaid leave. The remaining 80% said they had been offered no assistance, and some even reported not being able to speak to anyone at their workplace, as managers were either furloughed themselves or simply not replying. One new mother told us:

I have tried to contact my employer several times regarding my maternity leave and have had no response. I have not heard from them since I started my maternity leave.205

Risk of redundancy

111.In addition to statutory leave and pay, there are employment rights and protections associated with being a new parent. The Equality Act 2010 sets out a ‘protected period’ during which women who are pregnant or have recently given birth are explicitly protected from discrimination. During this period, a woman is protected against discrimination as a result of her pregnancy or entitlement to maternity leave, which covers any scenario where it could be judged she has been treated unfavourably as a result. This period currently ends when she finishes maternity leave and returns to work, although certain unfavourable treatment after this time may still constitute discrimination on the grounds of sex.206

112.Several parents who took part in our online engagement said they were already concerned about the possibility of being made redundant. One new mother told us:

There has been no discussion with my employer. I had always planned to take the maximum period of maternity leave. I do not want to take any unpaid leave on top of this as the last person who did that was made to work fewer days and made redundant upon their return (pre corona and as part of a wider consultation).207

113.In 2013, following the last UK recession, Maternity Action found that the number of women being forced out of their jobs since the onset of the recession had doubled.208 There are concerns that this will happen again. Already data from the University of Cambridge is showing that women have been hit the hardest by the lockdown economically, and widespread redundancies of new parents carried out under the cover of mass layoffs would compound this, and potentially take years from which to recover.209

114.Employees on parental leave have specific protections when it comes to redundancies. For example, they must first be offered any suitable alternative job if there is one available, and they can only be made redundant if there is clear justification, such as a whole section of a business closing.211 As this protection ends along with their leave, there is a real risk to parents in the time immediately following their return to work. Research commissioned by the Government in 2015 found that 1 in 9 women said they had been fired or made redundant when they returned to work after having a child, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job.212 In July 2019 the Government announced it would extend redundancy protection for six months after the return to work.213 The extension to these protections will be most welcome, but we were disappointed to hear from the Minister that there is no timescale in place for its introduction, and once again it hinges on parliamentary time allowing for the introduction of an Employment Bill.214 Without urgent legislation, this change will come much too late for the cohort of parents who will be returning to work during and in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic.

115.The current crisis has put new parents, particularly mothers, at increased risk of redundancy and hardship. New and expectant mothers are already a group who are vulnerable to discrimination, and the Government needs to ensure that the current crisis doesn’t widen this discrimination and inequality further. We recommend that the Government should prioritise the necessary legislation to extend redundancy protection as soon as possible and provide a timetable for its introduction and implementation.

Challenging unfair dismissal

116.Limits on how the CJRS can be used for returning parents215 will mean that those parents coming to the end of their leave may be especially vulnerable to losing their job, returning at a time when the company is already looking to reduce headcount. Extending parental leave and pay by three months, a request we urge the Government to reconsider, would not only cost less per person than furloughing them, but it may in some cases buy them the extra time needed to arrange suitable childcare, and return to their jobs when lockdown has lifted to a greater degree and some sectors have started to reopen.

117.We have seen from the examples of employers failing to suspend on full pay or furlough pregnant women, that many employers fall short of their legal obligations, so expecting that all new parents are protected by best-practice and responsible behaviour by employers would be naïve.216 Without an extension to maternity leave and before the extended protections promised in an as-yet-unpublished Employment Bill, new parents returning to work will have to rely on existing legal protections to challenge rogue employers who fire new parents, by bringing a claim of unfair or constructive dismissal.217 While existing legal protections may be able to protect employees, we heard from Maternity Action of a concern that:

transition from the current lockdown will generate a new wave of pregnancy and maternity discrimination and unfair redundancies, as government support schemes fall away, and employers seek to adjust to the new economic circumstances.218

118.For an employee who has been unfairly dismissed, the onus is on them to bring a claim, and they must do so within 3 months of the termination of their employment.219 In that period they must inform Acas of their intention to bring the claim, and may then enter an ‘early conciliation’ process to seek resolution.220 The potential volume of people who may fall victim to unfair dismissal in the coming months, combined with the unique challenges that newly unemployed new parents face, makes it even more difficult for them to find support and bring forward a claim for unfair dismissal. Maternity Action have argued that pregnant women and new parents would benefit from having more time to prepare and submit legal challenges to discrimination and other forms of unfair dismissal in the employment tribunal.221 We recognise the concerns of Maternity Action that pregnant women and new mothers, who are at significant risk of discrimination and dismissal, may struggle to prepare and submit legal challenges within the 3-month time limit, at what is already an extraordinarily challenging time. We recommend that the Government considers extending the period in which pregnant women and new parents may bring claims before the employment tribunal to 6 months from dismissal on a temporary or permanent basis in light of current challenges posed by Covid-19.

167 Annex 2

168 Institute for Public Policy Research, No More Baby Steps, June 2014, p4

170 Annex 2

171 Oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on 27 May 2020, HC (2019–21) 322, Q76

172 Annex 2

173 Annex 2

174 Coram (GRC0005)

175 HC Deb, 9 March January 2020, col 1WH [Westminster Hall]

178 Early Years Alliance (GRC0009)

180 Treasury Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2017–19, Childcare, HC 757, Education Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2017–19, Tackling disadvantage in the early years, HC 1006, All Party Parliamentary Group for Childcare and Early Education, Steps to sustainability, 2019

181 Annex 2

182 Annex 2

184 Annex 2

186 Annex 2

187 Annex 2

188 Annex 2

189 Annex 2

190 Annex 2

191 Annex 2

192 Annex 2

193 First 1001 Days Movement (GRC0006)

194 Annex 2

195 Cabinet Office, Staying alert and safe (social distancing), accessed 23 June 2020

196 Annex 1

197 Annex 1

199 Annex 1

200 Annex 2

201 Institute for Fiscal Studies, Wage progression and the gender wage gap: the causal impact of hours of work, IFS Briefing note BN223 (2018)

202 Annex 2

203 HC Deb col 242, 13 May 2020, [Commons Chamber]

205 Annex 2

206 Citizens advice, Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, accessed 23 June 2020

207 Annex 2

212 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Pregnancy and maternity discrimination research findings, May 2018

213 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Pregnant women and new parents to get enhanced redundancy protections, July 2019

215 See Furlough as an option at the end of maternity leave (p18).

216 See Health and Safety for pregnant women and new mothers (p19).

217 GOV.UK, Dismissal: your rights, accessed 23 June 2020

218 Maternity Action (GRC0023)

219 GOV.UK,Dismissal: your rights, accessed 23 June 2020

220 This process must be started before the 3 month limitation period, but does not need to concluded within that time. See:

221 Maternity Action (GRC0023)

Published: 6 July 2020