This Government have transformed support for working parents since 1997—doubling maternity pay, introducing paternity pay and leave, more than doubling good-quality affordable child care places and extending statutory maternity leave from 14 to 52 weeks. Most recently, the Prime Minister has announced new flexibility for working parents, whereby from April 2011, if a mother wants to return to work six months after the birth, the other six months of her leave can be taken by her partner with three months of it paid. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on the administration of this scheme to make it as accessible as possible for both employers and employees.
I recommend to the Solicitor-General the Conservative proposals for even greater flexibility in parental leave sharing between the mother and the father. Does she agree that that might help to mitigate any negative impact of improved parental leave on the employment prospects of women of child-bearing age?
It is clearly very important to split child care leave between mothers and fathers, not least because if a potential employer is confronted with a man he wants to employ and a woman he wants to employ, he will be unable to discriminate against them if one is capable of having six months leave and the other is equally capable of having that leave if his partner becomes pregnant. The difficulty about the Tories’ leave is that it is totally unpaid.
Well, it is almost totally unpaid. That is very clear. The right hon. Lady would be better off if she explained to those thinking of having their children now that they had better be careful, because those benefits are going to be slashed under the Tory pay cuts ahead.
The right-leaning think-tank Reform has today published a report calling for the abolition of so-called middle-class benefits. Has my hon. and learned Friend been able to consider that report, and does she know the impact on working mothers if we were to abolish maternity benefits?
This issue relates to the point that I have just made. The level of these benefits is such as to provide very good support to working and middle-class people who want to be able to have families and to have optimal choice between flexibility at work and home care. If, as a result of the unhappy occurrence of a Tory majority at the next election, which according to the polls is looking less and less likely—we are now down to a very limited possibility, if at all—these benefits were assaulted and slashed, many of my constituents are very well aware of the dangers that they would face.