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

Conclusions and recommendations

Current entitlements for new parents

1.The Government’s response has argued that the UK’s maternity leave offer is already amongst the most generous in the world. Although up to 52 weeks leave is generous compared to other countries, the amount of maternity pay is not the most generous in the world. While we accept that other more generous schemes are often not funded by the state, it remains the case that many new mothers in the UK can’t afford to take their full leave entitlement. Successive governments have not examined systematically enough the scale of take-up of the full maternity leave available, and reasons for not taking their full entitlements. This would better enable us to consider the suitability of current arrangements. The Government should capture data on the uptake of parental leave, as well as pay, so that any future review of parental leave arrangements can consider the extent to which parents from all groups are able to use their entitlements. (Paragraph 15)

2.As a matter of urgency the Government should consider whether Maternity Allowance should be considered as earnings in the same way as Statutory Maternity Pay and should not lead to deductions from Universal Credit. (Paragraph 17)

3.Parental leave and pay are not unique in having different provisions for employed and self-employed people, and this is just one area of a complex benefit system. It is however apparent that many of the inequalities are not a reflection of differing circumstances, but more of an oversight by successive governments. In the case of self-employed adoptive parents, and all special guardians, they are getting less support than others. That the current entitlements have been added over a number of years may explain some of these disparities, but it does not remove the challenges posed. There are some discrepancies in the current provisions for parental leave that should be addressed: these include provisions for neonatal leave; self-employed adoptive parents and special guardians. Benefits for self-employed adoptive parents should be equalised to those of other self-employed parents, and parental leave and pay provisions should be extended to special guardians. (Paragraph 22)

Support for new parents during Covid-19

4.The Government has suggested that women can be furloughed as a means of extending their maternity leave and delaying their return to work. However, access to the scheme is reliant on employers’ consent, rather than parents having a right to it, and there are strict limitations to whom it can apply. Many new mothers are not eligible, if their employer has not yet furloughed others, if they work in the public sector, or if their employer needs people back at work. We heard from teachers, police officers and NHS workers who simply did not have the option of being furloughed. For these reasons we do not think it is fair for the Government to suggest that it is realistic for many new parents. (Paragraph 26)

5.For those new parents on maternity leave for whom furlough was already possible, the Government failed to make it clear either to them or their employers that it was an option. The Government should publish clear new guidance for employees and employers, including dedicated pages on GOV.UK, on supporting employees returning from parental leave that explains clearly their options and responsibilities. (Paragraph 27)

6.The Government’s work to ensure premises are safe for workers during the pandemic is welcome. As an at-risk group, there is more that can be done to ensure that employers are aware of their responsibilities for the safety of pregnant women in the workplace, including the need for them to be suspended on full pay if it is not safe for them to work. We recommend that the Government publish clear guidance for employers on their obligations in respect of pregnant woman who cannot safely socially distance at work, including making clear that pregnant women have a right to be suspended on full pay if they cannot work safely. We also recommend that the Government extend the furlough scheme to include all pregnant women, so that an additional safety net is available to both pregnant women and their employers. (Paragraph 33)

7.In addition to the immediate financial consequences for pregnant women of being put on Statutory Sick Pay or unpaid leave—often when they should have been suspended on full pay—in many cases the loss of income that results can also mean women lose their rights to Statutory Maternity Pay. This is unacceptable. Nor should anyone having to spend a period on Statutory Sick Pay or unpaid leave due to following guidelines to isolate, including the new track and trace policy, be penalised for their compliance. The Government was able to amend the Statutory Maternity Pay calculations to disregard the lower income of periods on furlough. We recommend the Government should also do so for women whose incomes have fallen through no fault of their own because their employers have failed to follow the Government’s guidance on how pregnant women should be treated. (Paragraph 35)

8.The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme uses three years of tax returns to assess the average income of claimants. Claimants who have undertaken periods of parental leave in these years, will not receive support at a level representative of their usual earnings. We recommend that the Government amend the terms of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to take into account periods of maternity and parental leave, to avoid discriminating against new parents. (Paragraph 37)

9.The Government’s decision to reject the request to extend maternity leave has been hugely disappointing to the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed this petition. In these extraordinary circumstances, where the Government has taken exceptional action to support different groups of people, we believe that extending maternity leave would be a proportionate action to take, in line with the support provided through the CJRS and SEISS. We support the call of more than 226,000 petitions and urge the Government to reconsider its decision not to extend parental leave and pay for families during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Paragraph 40)

10.It is difficult to see how health visitors will be able to ‘catch-up’ with their important contact visits to provide the much-needed support for new parents and to help identify those who are vulnerable and most in need. This risks more vulnerable children and families becoming hidden. The Government should review the provision of health visitor services in light of Covid-19 and consider funding increased numbers of health visitors and other allied professionals to ensure that vulnerable families are identified and given the support they need. (Paragraph 50)

11. While baby classes may not be directly vital to baby development, they provide important support to new parents, which will benefit the care they can provide. From our discussions with the sector and with the Minister, there has not been sufficient engagement with these groups or appropriate consideration of the contribution that they make the lives of new parents. The Government should engage fully with this important sector and consider how it can be better supported. We were pleased that the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, Paul Scully MP, has committed to Government engagement with the baby class sector. The Government should provide an update on its discussions with the baby group sector as part of its response to this report (Paragraph 56)

12.New parents have missed out on vital support from professionals such as health visitors to baby classes and groups. We’ve heard how important this support is for parental mental health and for helping to lay the foundation for parenting, family life and early infant development. The Government has announced a £1 billion catch-up fund for older children who have missed out on valuable education. These new parents have also missed out at a crucial time for both them and their children. The Government should fund and provide additional catch-up support targeted at this cohort of parents to enable them to access both the professional and more informal support that plays such an important role during the first few months of parenting. (Paragraph 57)

13.Free dental care is an important benefit that most pregnant and new mothers have been unable to access as the result of the pandemic. The Government should extend maternity dentist provision for new and expectant mothers affected by the pandemic for at least six months, so new mothers have the opportunity to access this important benefit. (Paragraph 59)

Parental mental health

14.Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the mental health of the whole nation. New and expectant parents have especially been put under tremendous strain during what is already an incredibly challenging time in their lives. It is extremely likely that there will be a significant increase in mental health referrals from new parents which the Government must ensure that the Health Service is fully prepared for. We are the first generation of legislators with the scientific knowledge of the impact that parental mental health has on the development, health and future outcomes of some of the most vulnerable in society: babies and young children. We must act on this knowledge. The Government should fund and provide additional professional and mental health support especially targeted at this cohort of parents, and their children in addition to its wider plans to significantly expand mental health services provided by the NHS. (Paragraph 72)

15.Adoptive parents and their children have faced uniquely challenging situations without the access to the professional and informal support that they need. These children are among the most vulnerable in society. In the most serious situations, we’ve heard that the negative impacts of Covid-19 could lead to an increase in adoption breakdown which would be devastating for parents and children. The extension of adoption leave with pay would give these new parents the opportunity to access some of the support they’ve missed out on as lockdown restrictions are eased. It will also give them valuable time to establish important routines and to bond with their children, as well as time to settle their children into new childcare or schools and introduce them to their wider adoptive families. The Government should extend adoption leave and pay for adoptive parents who have been affected by the pandemic for three months. (Paragraph 80)

16.The Government’s response to this inquiry so far has not addressed the immediate situation faced by self-employed adoptive parents as a result of Covid-19. A future review, although welcome, may not come in time for this cohort of parents and children who desperately need additional support. Adoptive parents spend a huge amount of time planning their leave period carefully so that their children and new families can have the very best start. No-one was able to plan for Covid-19. These parents are looking after some of the most vulnerable children in our society and need help as a matter of urgency. The Government should consider equalising the benefits for self-employed adoptive parents to those of other self-employed parents. This could be a pilot scheme for those who became new parents during the pandemic to inform the Government’s wider review on parental leave. (Paragraph 81)

17.Special guardians need time and support to help their often highly vulnerable children to settle into their new kinship families in the same way that adoptive and other parents do. They should not be treated any differently to any other parent in this respect. A future review is welcome. As part of that review, the Government should consider whether entitlements and benefits for parental leave and pay can be extended to special guardians. (Paragraph 85)

18.We welcome the Government’s recognition that special neonatal leave and pay should be introduced for all parents who find themselves in this situation. The Government plans to include provisions in its forthcoming Employment Bill to introduce this reform in 2023. In advance of the planned delivery of neonatal leave and pay in 2023, the Government should pilot the introduction of these reforms for those affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. If a success, the date of the general introduction of these measures could be brought forward. (Paragraph 92)

19.We welcome the Government’s introduction of testing for members of the public. However, priority testing should be made available for parents of babies in neonatal care. No parent should be separated unnecessarily from their newborn for any longer that they need to. The Government should prioritise rapid testing for parents of babies in neonatal care. (Paragraph 93)

Childcare and returning to work

20.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. (Paragraph 108)

21.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. (Paragraph 115)

22.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. (Paragraph 118)

Published: 6 July 2020