Monday 5 October 2020
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave
Welcome to the first sitting of Westminster Hall under these very unusual and temporary arrangements. I hardly need remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. As I look around, the Room is a picture of perfection—nobody is less than 2 metres away from anyone else. I ask hon. Members to sanitise microphones before using them and to respect the one-way system for moving around the Room. You will find in front of you a diagram that explains by colours where we are—it is self-explanatory.
Only Members who are sitting on the horseshoe may speak. That is because of microphones and so on, but it also helps us to keep the numbers in the Room manageable. Members may speak only if they are on the call lists. That applies even if debates are undersubscribed, although this debate is not. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups, because those in the latter stages of the call list, who will use the seats in the Public Gallery, need to move on to the horseshoe when seats become available. At the moment, you are all perfectly spaced and able to speak from where you are.
I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the following two speeches once they have already spoken. That does not mean that they can abuse the system by popping in and out again, which will be frowned upon, but obviously, we have to have that rule if we want to move people around in an oversubscribed debate so that some can leave and others can come in. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent the Members in the Public Gallery from moving to the horseshoe. Does anyone have any reasonable questions about procedure before we properly begin?
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 306691 relating to the impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to be able once again to hold Westminster Hall debates—I am very grateful to all the House staff who have worked incredibly hard to make it possible. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber is not a true reflection of the level of concern about the issue or interest in speaking in the debate, but there are restrictions to maintain social distancing.
There is no doubt, however, about the level of interest in and concern about the impact of the pandemic on new mums, new families and their babies. In a matter of weeks, almost a quarter of a million people signed the petition, which calls for maternity leave to be extended for a further three months. The powerful argument made by the petition is that the additional months would make up for the crucial time that parents have lost during the pandemic and lockdown, when they have been isolated from support networks that are vital for a baby’s development. It would also alleviate some of their anxiety about having to find appropriate childcare and make arrangements to return to work when not only their own world, but the world at large has been turned upside down.
Becoming a parent can be overwhelming. No matter how well or easily a new parent adjusts, it is rarely quite how they imagined it. It is not only the physical changes, such as the impact of the birth itself, but the emotional, hormonal and sleep-deprived journey, that can take an enormous toll on new parents. One thing is for sure: life will never go back to how it was before. Add to that bringing new life into the world in the middle of a pandemic, and there is a clear case for giving new parents at least some more time, if not a whole range of additional support.
The huge support for this petition sparked an inquiry by the Petitions Committee, which I have the privilege to chair. Over the course of the inquiry, almost 70,000 people shared their experiences with us. We held online evidence sessions with expert witnesses, including psychologists, health visitors, childcare sector experts and new parents. I pay tribute to the brave and powerful contributors to our inquiry, to our lead petitioners James and Jessie, parents to baby Elliot, and to Bethany, mum to baby Jayden. I have huge admiration for those new parents who have not only faced significant challenges themselves but have fought to get the help that they and parents up and down the country need.
The message that emerged from our Committee’s inquiry was clear: the impact of this pandemic on new parents has been profound, and a failure to act now risks impacting the mental and physical health and wellbeing not just of new parents in the immediate term but of their babies in the long term. We were told in stark terms that we are the first generation of legislators to know about the impact of maternal mental health on the development of children. We therefore have no excuse not to act.
Many new parents want an extension of paid parental leave to give them time to find adequate childcare and settle their babies for their return to work. In many cases, previously arranged childcare or support from relatives is just not an option. We know that new mothers are at a much greater risk of discrimination and redundancy in normal times, but as we face the seismic economic impact of this pandemic, those risks will become greater.
Therefore, in July our Committee published a report not just recommending the core ask of the petition but making no fewer than 23 recommendations to the Government. Each sensible, constructive and deliverable suggestion was designed to lessen the impact of the crisis on new parents. As well as extending maternity leave, we called on the Government to extend access to free dental care, capture more data on the uptake of parental leave, extend the furlough scheme to include all pregnant women, amend the self-employment income support scheme, update the Government discussions with the baby group sector, fund and provide additional catch-up support, increase health visitor services, provide neonatal leave, pay and rapid testing, conduct an urgent review into childcare and a longer-term independent review, provide redundancy protection for new mums, extend the period for bringing an employment tribunal claim, extend adoption leave and pay, and provide support for special guardians.
Despite the urgency, it was not until September that the Government responded, and it was an extremely disappointing response. Almost every one of our recommendations was rejected. The Government agreed to provide an update on discussion with the baby group sector and hold a discussion meeting with the groups to understand how parents could be supported to return to work. That was the only ask that the Government agreed to. In rejecting our evidenced, reasonable and deliverable recommendations, they demonstrated a failure to understand the deep anxiety of mothers and fathers across the country, and a failure to follow the science.
At People’s PMQs on 10 July, new mum Bethany Jade did an excellent job of putting this issue to the Prime Minister, who promised that he would take a look at our report. Fast forward to September, and I raised it again with the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee, but he had clearly made no further effort to follow Bethany Jade’s request. The fact that he is a new father during this pandemic makes me wonder how none of this resonated more.
The case is told most powerfully by new parents themselves. Petitioner Bethany Power said:
“I am in shock of the Government’s dismissal.”
“Mums and babies don’t matter to this Government. It’s more important that people can play golf or get a pint.”
“One of the things that I have found hardest and most distressing about this time has been the lack of contact with family and friends. I have seen my family twice this year due to the lockdown and restrictions in place and so have missed this support.”
“I spent the whole of my third trimester unable to see my family, prepare for my birth as antenatal classes were cancelled, go to shops to buy essentials and uncertain if my husband would be allowed into the birth of our first child. This caused a huge amount of distress for me and effected my mental health”.
“Discriminated against and forgotten about. Not even an extension to free dental care that we can’t access.”
Testimony from the sector has come in thick and fast. On the Government’s claim that the UK’s maternity offer is generous, Emily Tredget from Happity said:
“Whilst it is amongst the longest, it is sadly lacking in terms of financial support, actually being one of the worst in the developed world.”
On protecting pregnant women in the workplace:
“Daily I see women asking for advice after tricky discussions with HR where they’ve been told that childcare isn’t the problem of the employer, or that they can’t go onto unpaid leave and so are forced to resign.”
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who I am pleased is with us today, has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on the issue, which reinforces cross-party support. Will the Government urgently review their approach and bring forward a clear timetable for these planned reforms to be implemented? Women need protection now.
Health visitor services were already stretched before the pandemic and now some have reportedly been forced to care for up to 2,400 families with newborns at a time, which is 10-times the recommended number. Mary Renfrew, professor of mother and infant health at the University of Dundee, has warned:
“Taking resources away from maternity care doesn’t make sense because we know that will create long-term harm.”
Will the Minister commit today to urgently reviewing health visitor provision, in light of the clear evidence that the services are overwhelmed?
On the challenges faced by baby and toddler groups, the First 1001 Days Movement said that the Government’s response
“shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of parent and baby groups.”
The Government continue to fail to listen and their response, published today, claims that there is a “wealth” of Government guidance available, but the sector has said repeatedly that this guidance is not clear enough. Many groups are struggling to reopen, as venues and insurers interpret the guidance differently. Will the Government recognise the problem and make simple changes to the language, as suggested in both our correspondence and by representatives of the sector, to provide much-needed clarity to a sector they have acknowledged is important to parents?
On access to childcare, Maternity Action has said:
“Since March, the Government has rightly spent unprecedented sums to support employment. However, if it does not take urgent action to shore up the childcare sector and enable parents, particularly mothers, to return to work, much of that investment will be wasted… Four in ten working mothers with young children cannot get… enough childcare to cover their working hours.”
Will the Government take another look at this and recognise the challenges that is causing for many working parents across the country?
Even neonatal leave, an existing policy commitment and one that we recommended should be piloted now, was rejected. The charity Bliss has said:
“Research shows families are struggling with the practicalities of having a sick baby alongside job insecurity and restricted finances, and that extra support is desperately needed.”
In conclusion, it has been almost six months since the petition started and many new parents have passed the point at which their maternity entitlement has come to an end. Is the Government’s strategy just to wait the situation out? In the spring, lockdown placed a huge strain on people and local restrictions are causing many to worry that we are heading for more of the same. An ever-growing cohort of new parents have been left without support at a crucial time in their and their babies’ lives. There are many practical and realistic steps, as set out in our Committee’s report, that the Government could take to support new parents. To date, we have heard many warm words from Ministers, but these will not provide parents with the support they need.
There is a long-established principle that, even in good times, a blanket of support is wrapped around new mums and their babies. That is why we have maternity leave, health visitors, post-partum mental health support and a period of free dentistry, to mention just a few. There is a clear evidence base for that. It not only supports and protects new mothers at a time of increased vulnerability, but it protects their baby too. If we believe that giving the best start in life to every baby matters, that matters during the pandemic too.
It is not good enough to say that we are all in this together, when we know that some people are affected much more than others. New mums are clearly hugely affected by this pandemic, and the consequences could last for generations. They have stepped up to the plate. It is time the Government did their part too.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), and it is a pleasure to speak in this debate on an issue close to my heart, as my son was just four months old when we went down into lockdown in March. We went from having a busy schedule of baby yoga, coffees with other mums, leisurely trips to the park, visits from family—all the things that people do to get through the sleepless nights and caring for a tiny baby—to overnight having no social interaction at all and rarely leaving the house. On top of that, throw home schooling a five-year-old into the mix—holding a baby in a sling or breastfeeding while trying to teach the five-year-old phonics.
For me, being an MP, switching off from work during the pandemic simply was not an option, so when the baby slept, the laptop went on as I dealt with the unprecedented number of emails from constituents. What struck me, though, was that in response to the pandemic, no one in Government seemed to be advocating for the very specific needs of young babies and their families. That matters, because pregnancy and the first few years of a baby’s life are key developmental stages, and adverse experiences and stress during this time can have a long-term impact on a child’s life chances. Sadly, the statistics are clear. The “Babies in Lockdown” report commissioned by the Parent-Infant Foundation found that 68% of parents felt that changes brought about by covid-19 were affecting their unborn baby, baby or young child. The same number also felt that their ability to cope with pregnancy or to care for their baby had been affected by the covid restrictions.
I spoke to some mums from my constituency ahead of the debate, and I want to use the debate as an opportunity to give them a voice. Nic told me:
“Being a new mum, I worry I am not doing enough for my daughter, and also making sure she is eating enough. As the midwife drop-in centres have been closed, I have been unable to weigh her or be able to speak to a midwife or health visitor face to face. That has been a real worry for me.”
“My biggest challenge was feeling isolated at home, trying to look after a baby and a toddler without much support. I felt overwhelmed and alone, so I would have loved some support with childcare from other family members.”
Louisa told me:
“I feel like coronavirus has stolen my maternity leave. The first few months of a baby’s life are about trying to adjust and to get to know your newborn. We had only been going to activities for a few weeks before the support network disappeared overnight. From March until September, my daughter did not meet or engage with other babies. I go back to work in December, and I am already worried about how my daughter will settle into nursery due to her lack of interaction with other adults or babies.”
I also spoke to two mums who gave birth during lockdown. Sophie said:
“I spent four days in hospital on my own after the birth of my first child. I was struggling to establish breastfeeding and felt incredibly isolated. My baby had tongue-tie, but because of covid, the waiting list to get it sorted was six weeks, so we had to pay privately.”
Finally, Rachel said:
“I’ve had mental health problems in the past, so I had a care plan, which involved having a named midwife. That changed due to covid, and appointments were cancelled. My husband was only allowed in 20 minutes before my daughter was born. My care plan had involved having my sister and mum coming to help with the baby, but that couldn’t happen. Three weeks after the birth, I came down with severe post-natal depression and opted to go to a mother and baby unit.”
Many of those stories resonate with me and my own experience. I hope that the Government listen to our collective voice and provide additional support, including resources to allow missed health contacts and other outreach from early years services, such as children’s centres, to take place. Children’s centres have closed at pace over the past 10 years, and that trend needs to be reversed now more than ever, with significant investment given to early years services. Face-to-face health visiting services must be fully restored; again, they require investment, having been cut over many years. Funding is also needed for the more informal support, such as playgroups and drop-ins, which provide a lifeline for so many families but have struggled to reopen their doors. The Government should also revisit guidance about partners being present before and after births.
I thank the Petitions Committee for securing the debate. More importantly, I thank all the parents who signed the petition and called on the Government to listen to their voices. I know at first hand the struggles of the past six months. I applaud everyone who has faced maternity and paternity leave in lockdown. I hope, like them, that the Government are listening.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the Petitions Committee for its excellent report, the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for their contributions to securing the debate, and all the organisations that gave evidence towards the report, especially Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action.
Parents have faced extraordinary challenges, and none more so than new parents during the pandemic. I would like to comment briefly on three issues raised in the report and its recommendations. It certainly was good to hear the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge reminding us all what it is like to be a new mother or father and the uncertainty that we all face at that time. The lack of access to family members—often mum, who is really good at being there at that time—has been very difficult indeed. We are still waiting for my niece to give birth to her first child, another baby conceived and born in the pandemic period.
The first specific issue in the report that I would like to look at is childcare. Members know that one of the most challenging things for our constituents was trying to balance work with looking after their children, when often their childcare provider was not able to provide them with the childcare that they needed, although obviously many nurseries were open for frontline workers and we applaud them for that. I also applaud the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Minister in charge of childcare, for the work that they clearly did to ensure that the system continued to work even in these very difficult circumstances. I am thinking particularly of the report’s recommendations 19 and 20, which include a call for a review of funding and of lessons learned. There is always a place for learning lessons, and clearly it has been very frustrating for parents to have to try to balance everything without the childcare that they have come to rely on, but I would like to place it on the record that I think that the Ministers have done an amazing job to ensure that free hours have continued to be available for two, three and four-year-olds, that the funding was there even when settings were closed, and that more than £3 billion continues to be spent on nursery provision. I hope that all local authorities are doing what they need to do to ensure that that childcare is secure for the future.
When we look at other areas, particularly the way in which businesses have dealt with the issue, we see a less rosy story. Employers have found it even more challenging than ever to stay within the law regarding their treatment of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. The Government are absolutely clear; when I raised the matter with the Secretary of State in May, he said at the Dispatch Box that
“expectant mothers are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if a suitable role cannot be found within the workplace.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 159.]
Unfortunately, too many businesses failed to hear that or decided not to correctly interpret it, leaving too many women either being incorrectly put on sick pay or starting maternity leave earlier. We know that more women have already been made redundant in the pandemic than men, and that mothers are at much higher risk than fathers of being made redundant from this point on.
Recommendation 4 in the Committee’s report calls for
“clear guidance for employers on their obligations in respect of pregnant women who cannot safely socially distance at work”,
reiterating that women have a legal right to full pay. I fully support that recommendation—albeit that businesses should know that already.
Thirdly, we need better protection for pregnant women in the first place. I have to slightly disagree with the report here, because recommendation 21 calls for bringing in the Government’s recommendations on improving maternity leave. Well, I do not think that the Government’s recommendations are where they should be. I urge the Committee to look at my Bill, the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, which would bring in protections very similar to those already in place in Germany to ensure that while women are pregnant, and up to six months after they return from pregnancy, they cannot be made redundant in the first place. Too many women—around 50,000 a year, we think—leave their jobs when they are pregnant, just because they are pregnant. A sharp warning bell has to be sent to the Government, whose own research I am citing, that the law as it stands is not working and needs to change.
I thank those hon. Members who have led on the issue for many months and set out quite a lot of achievable solutions. It is very clear that the pandemic has affected absolutely everyone in society, but new parents are experiencing particularly acute and harsh point-in-time impacts, because of the disruption to their plans and to services that they would have enjoyed, and because of lost opportunities to bond with family and people in the wider community, interruption to their childcare plans, and the financial hardship that many will experience.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and others outlined some of the feeling about the provision and communication of protections for pregnant women in the workplace and on furlough. I certainly endorse the recommendations of the Committee and, indeed, those of Maternity Action. Unfortunately, the negative financial impacts will have extended to self-employed women, many of whom have constructed their career in that way precisely for a better balance of home and work life. Of course, no account was made of lost earnings due to maternity leave in the qualifying period, and that has left a massive hole in the replacement income for many women, and has exacerbated the gender pay gap that already exists in the relevant part of the economy.
The threat of redundancy is, as others have said, an acute issue, and Members will know that working mothers are already deeply exposed to redundancy or job downgrading. The coming economic challenges, alongside the catastrophic effects on childcare, will sharpen the risk. The advocacy group Pregnant Then Screwed, which has been relentless on the issue, reports 11% of pregnant women being made redundant, or expecting to be made redundant, in the period in question. That is more than 20 times the incidence in the general population. More than half of those women believe that their pregnancy was a factor in the decision. The proportion made or expecting to be made redundant rises to 15% for working mothers, and 46% of those cited issues with childcare provision as a factor. That was already a marginal economic activity for providers and a huge cost for families, if they were lucky enough to be able to find a suitable provider. In that context, the period in which women can bring forward employment tribunal claims should be extended.
As Members have said, the most negative impacts may have been felt in the restrictions on attendance by partners at antenatal sessions and deliveries, and in the immediate postpartum period. There is no doubt about the pressures and challenges that healthcare providers are trying to balance, but the regulations are deeply upsetting for many women at an acutely vulnerable time. The Royal College of Midwives has said:
“Having a trusted birth partner present throughout labour and birth is known to make a significant difference to the safety and well-being of women.”
When the coronavirus is heightening anxiety,
“that reassurance is more important than ever.”
In particular, the changes in rules and their variation across trusts are creating even more anxiety. What women can expect when they are expecting can change more than once during a pregnancy. I appreciate that that is because of the ups and downs of pandemic advice in the community, but I believe such a crucial function should be protected as we are protecting the ability of small children to go to school. Restrictions in this regard should be among the very last to be made.
Women who have just had babies need support in many ways, to rest, to establish breastfeeding, in some cases to recover from major abdominal surgery, and of course just to figure out how to look after a newborn baby. Some women need to stay in hospital for care and specific support, and the rules about partners and visitors are forcing some to choose between hospital care and family care. Many will choose the latter and be discharged too soon, which will create long-term impacts. Midwives, health visitors and volunteer groups are, as other Members have outlined, next to angels in that period in the journey as a parent, with the monitoring, advice and reassurance they provide. It is tragic that that support will not have been available for many.
There will be long-term impacts from this year, for many people, and the isolation of new parents will be a big part of that. It will take imagination and resources to put in place the measures we can. We will not be able to do everything, because of the pandemic restrictions, but the Committee has outlined some measures. France, for example, has just doubled paternity leave allowance. We must make sure that we do the things we can within the restrictions.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a joy to be back in Westminster Hall. It is a joy to be the first bloke to speak in Westminster Hall after the lockdown, and it is a decided bonus to have you here in the chair and to see so many colleagues suitably “spaced out”, as I think you referred to us earlier.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate and on the report from her Committee. It is no mean feat to have achieved over 230,000 signatures. I cannot speak with as much authority as can the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), being so close to having a four-month-old—I am rather closer to being a prospective grandparent—but I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for conception to age two: first 1001 days, and I chair the charity the Parent-Infant Foundation.
Others have already spoken out about the need for greater flexibility for maternity leave and paternity leave, brought on by the particular factors and pressures during lockdown. I agree with much of what is in the report and with what the hon. Member for Newcastle North has said. It has been interesting that the report is very much informed by the personal testimonies of many parents, including many new parents. Parents are facing extra pressures: school closures, with many parents who already had children facing having those children at home as well as going through pregnancy, confusion for employers and employees about what they are actually entitled to at work and what is safe for them to be able to work during pregnancy given the coronavirus considerations, and mixed access to childcare, as the hon. Lady said. There is also the added stress of not being able to have partners at crucial hospital appointments and scans, and in some cases even at birth, and there are some really tragic cases. I quote the case of Emma Kemsley from Saffron Walden who could not even have a partner at a termination when she found out at her 18-week scan that the baby would not survive outside the womb. It was doubly tragic. These are exceptional circumstances. These are not ordinary times.
Babies have become the forgotten part of the population during the pandemic. Over 330,000 babies have now been born in England during lockdown. Many new family members and parents have been isolated from extended family members. They have not had the usual loving care and support of grandparents around them. There have been cases of babies now exposed to other babies recoiling because they are not used to babies. They have not been at those post-natal classes where there is contact with other babies, so they are just not used to them. It is going to take a lot of normalising when we can get back into socialising, which is such an important part of the life of a new baby and of a new parent in particular. The problem in respect of health visitors is that the only families permitted to have face-to-face contact with health visitors are those that have been deemed vulnerable. That is such an important item of support in those early days, and is also an important early warning system for things potentially going wrong. Many toddlers, children and new babies have not had those important early checks, and we hear that up to 70% of health visitors have been redeployed to other hospital community settings during the pandemic. That is a really false economy when the impact that those health visitors can have so early on—for new parents in particular—is absolutely essential. Every year, 106,000 under-one-year-olds are exposed to domestic violence, parental substance misuse or severe mental ill health, yet only 15,000 of them are supported by social workers.
The Parent-Infant Foundation, which I chair, produced the report “Babies in Lockdown” jointly with Best Beginnings and Home-Start UK. The report showed that almost seven in 10 parents felt that the changes brought about by covid were affecting their unborn baby or young child. Over two-thirds of respondents in the survey carried out by us said that, overall, their ability to cope with pregnancy or care for their baby had been affected by covid restrictions. Many families and young parents from lower income backgrounds and black Asian and minority ethnic communities had been hit harder by the covid pandemic. That is likely to widen the already deep inequalities and early experiences and life chances of children. In the report we recommended a “baby boost” to enable local services to support families that had a baby during or close to lockdown, and a new parent-infant premium providing new funding for local commissioners targeted at improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children.
It is essential that those new babies—and new parents in particular—get the very best start in life and the best attachment to their children so that when they arrive at school they are normalised, socialised, ready, greedy and eager to learn and to get on with their fellow children at school. It is a false economy not to be doing more.
Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for initiating this debate here today and by declaring an interest: I had a baby just before lockdown. At the beginning of February, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I thank all the new parents who signed the petition and put it on the agenda here in Parliament today.
Throughout this pandemic, we have talked about either very abstract or very specific things such as whether people should go to Barnard Castle. What people really want us to discuss is what matters to them, the real-life issues, such as “Can I see my loved ones in a week’s time? Will I be able to spend Eid or Christmas with my family? Can I celebrate my friend’s wedding? Can I plan my own wedding?”––probably not right now––“Can I be with my partner when they give birth?”. I am glad that we have a chance to talk about something that has a real-life impact on people’s lives today.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, for many people, including myself, maternity stopped pretty much as covid started. Seven weeks after our baby was born, my partner, who is a teacher, was able to work from home, so I was able to start work, and the need was great, as many MPs saw a huge rise in casework and massive need.
Some of the people who took the time to write to their MPs were pregnant women who were terrified at the prospect of having to give birth alone or to have scans and maternity appointments alone or in very strange environments. It is hard for people, particularly those who have had difficult pregnancies, miscarriages or problems with their health before. It is almost a cliché to say that this crisis has laid bare many underlying problems that have existed for far too long in this country. We know that, even before the pandemic, over 3,000 health visitors had been cut in the past five years alone. It is clear that social distancing––not being able to see each other face to face–– makes it really hard for new mums to get the support they need. We know that this impacts the child but it also impacts mothers, especially. The expert work that health visitors do on such limited resource helps narrow some of the inequalities that we have talked about. We know that seven in 10 new mums hide or underplay any struggles they are facing. Can the Minister tell us what the Government’s plans are to restore the vital health visitors we have lost over the last few years and to help babies and parents to catch up on support that they have missed during the pandemic? That is absolutely vital.
When we talk about the very first stages in a child’s life, we look to children’s centres and nursery schools. All the support mechanisms have taken a massive hit because of covid, but they have stepped up. Will the Minister readdress the current situation in nursery schools, which have not been reimbursed for any of their covid costs, because that is an absolute disgrace? We know about the confusion and muddle with Government guidance but I am pleased that trusts have been enabled to allow partners to come in for maternity scans, in particular. I know that my own trust, which covers Luton and Dunstable hospital, has done that. What conversations has the Minister had with trusts? Two weeks ago, I got a written answer that said that he had had none, which is deeply concerning because trusts need to be enabled to do this.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for whom I am full of admiration. When we first arrived in Parliament, I remember wondering whether any MP had fought their first parliamentary seat so heavily pregnant. I do not think so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her work on this issue. She is right to highlight the issues that underpin this petition. Many of them have been drawn to my attention by an organisation in my constituency, Healthwatch West Berkshire. It touched on points including and most importantly the challenges facing new mothers during lockdown––I will define that as between March and July 2020––such as not being able to see close members of their family, meet their National Childbirth Trust groups if they were in one, or go to a family or children’s centre. The support that we would wish for new mothers was not there.
I would like to confine myself to the proposal in this petition, which is the right to extend paid maternity leave by a further three months to enable bonding and social engaging with other parents and babies through baby groups. I am not going to support the petition, and I shall set out why and what else I think should be done. The first reason is that I am not persuaded that this is the purpose of maternity leave. To look at the statutory purpose we have to delve back into European law. The pregnant workers directive was what kicked off the idea of maternity leave in 1992. Its essence was the wellbeing of the mother. It was about mandating member states to offer 14 weeks for the mother to make a physical recovery from childbirth. In 2009, the European Union looked at it again, and came up with firm recommendations that member states should offer 18 weeks; in fact, it recommended 24. It said that longer leave would have a positive impact on a mother’s health, and that its priority was to help women recover from giving birth and to create a solid relationship with their child.
Maternity leave, I say very respectfully, does not and has never existed for wider developmental purposes, and we should be wary about asking for it to do so, particularly in this country, where women have a statutory right to 52 weeks’ ordinary plus additional maternity leave. I fully accept the extreme limitations that were imposed by the lockdown, but the reality was that that would not have been the entirety of any woman’s maternity leave. To the extent that childcare provision and other services are still limited, I am not persuaded that their offering would radically change if we were to change the period by three months until Christmas, or even into the new year.
My other point is that I am very worried about mothers asking for a further three months’ maternity leave, knowing how vulnerable they are in the workplace. In my experience—I used to be an employment barrister—employers would find that an onerous requirement. While they may not make a woman redundant while she is on leave or even when she has recently returned, if she is caught in a redundancy exercise, say at the back end of 2021, she will find it very difficult to establish causation in an employment tribunal. I am concerned about that.
As to what the Government should do—and the conclusion I reached after 10 years of practice—I think the way to protect, enhance and progress women in the workplace is to embed flexible working practices. We have seen through this crisis how productive and effective people can be through doing their jobs at home. We have seen men doing it for the first time in jobs they never would have thought they could do from home. We have recalibrated our view of flexible working, which can also mean working reduced hours, flexi-working and job shares. My view is that the answer is not in extending statutory leave, but in embedding statutory flexibility in the workplace.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that nobody will take that advice as a reason to have a go at me—but if they do, they do.
I am delighted to participate in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for initiating it. I want to raise just three points, and I do so in the spirit of asking the Minister to look again to make sure that we are doing everything possible to ensure that everything works extremely well.
The first point relates to childcare. I fully accept that childcare is desperately important to ensure that there is the opportunity for people on maternity or paternity leave to go back to work. I fully accept that, but I pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton): it is very important for the children themselves. I, too, have come across children who were born during or just before the lockdown period, but who have been immersed in lockdown, who find it really difficult to engage not just with other children, but with anyone outside their immediate family. That is such a sad thing to experience. I am not quite sure what the answer is, except to build in flexibility and make sure that we have the right sort of understanding people running nurseries.
The second group of people that I ask the Minister to look at, to see whether we are doing the right thing for them, is the self-employed. There are a large number of self-employed people here in the UK, but we know that there are certain things that we have not done right. Can it be right that just under half of self-employed people have had to give up a place at nursery in order to carry on making a living? Can it be right that we ask the self-employed to take into account things that other people, particularly those who are employed, do not have to take into account?
My final point is about those people who are employed. I know that the Minister or one of his associates has raised the question of how companies deal with people who are on maternity or paternity leave. However, as many speakers have suggested, it is still an area that is open to abuse. For example, we still see a large number of suspensions being done on incorrect terms. We also still see a large number of people who are employed in unsafe conditions. I wonder whether it is worth our getting together a group of leaders in this field to make sure that the key messages that we want to get across are really understood and communicated across companies, so that they do things in the right way. We are not asking for anything special, but we are asking that things be done in the right way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In commencing my contribution to this debate, I pay wholehearted tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and indeed to other members of the Petitions Committee. It is rather extraordinary that the Petitions Committee had an inquiry at all; it is not a common thing for it to do. However, I think that it reflects the strength of feeling for this petition among its signatories—almost a quarter of a million in total—and given the fact that Westminster Hall was not accepting e-petition debates, it was an incredibly powerful thing to do. I am glad that the Petitions Committee not only conducted the inquiry but produced a very robust and encouraging report, which was compelling to read, and made arguments that I have yet to hear substantive rebuttals of. So I thank the hon. Lady for that.
I have no doubt that the Minister who is present here in Westminster Hall today enjoyed the evidence session—I think it was rather robust—and I must say that I have found that he has personally engaged with this issue. However, I have not found the Government to be anything other than tone deaf to the genuine aspirations expressed by mothers, to the concerns expressed by mothers and the wider family circle, and to the imperative of supporting young mothers, young babies and their wider family at a time when we have all had difficulties. I am afraid to say that the Government response was wholly insufficient.
Aside from the contribution of the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), I think there is a general view in the debate that more can be done; the hon. Lady was not denying that, just the intended purpose of the petition. Given that we are potentially entering another period of restrictions within wider society—of lockdowns and circuit breakers— I ask that the Government accept today at least that this issue has not gone away. The pressures that have manifested themselves in huge levels of public support for the e-petition and in the contributions that we have made in Parliament through the Committee’s report and through the subsequent report in September show that this debate is not over.
The Government should accept that families—those in which someone is currently pregnant and those in which someone is in the early stages of maternity leave—are still looking for the Government, who have heard that further work on support for the job support scheme and other measures that that can be taken to support individuals throughout society are needed, to acknowledge that mothers and families still remain in a difficult space. Health visitors, no matter how hard those professionals have tried to respond to the needs of those under their care, are still not providing the best support that they would wish to give. They are still relying on online engagement and Zoom calls, when face-to-face contact and getting to see mother, baby and the wider surroundings within the family setting are so crucial, yet it is all still constrained.
I was pleased to ask the Prime Minister on 23 July when the Government intended to respond to the Petitions Committee inquiry. The Prime Minister said he remembered Bethany from Crewe very well and he indicated that he would consider the report and its contents. I do not think anyone who surveyed the evidence in the Hansard transcripts of the Liaison Committee could believe that there was appropriate consideration of the 23 recommendations. That time has not passed; the opportunity still remains. In the name of the 638 members of my constituency who signed the petition and the hundreds of thousands of people throughout this country, I hope the Government will respond.
It is good to be back, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate.
The Government’s response to the petition so far has been disappointing. Far too many new parents have felt completely unsupported through what should be a time to bond with their newborn child. I urge Ministers to reconsider their response and extend parental leave and pay for families during the pandemic. The Government claim that the UK is among the most generous countries in the world in terms of parental leave. In practice, that is untrue. In fact, in UNICEF’s ranking of family-friendly policies, the UK ranked only 34 out of 41 OECD countries. As highlighted in the Petitions Committee’s report, the unpaid section of parental leave is simply unaffordable for many parents. As always, it is those who are already more disadvantaged who lose out.
The issue is not only about the generosity of parental leave in the UK. We should have that discussion because it clearly deserves our attention, and we can do a lot better, but today the Government need to consider the impact that the loss of access to vital services, including health visitors, has had on families during covid. That leads me to the subject of mental health. The first 12 months are vital for a new baby. There is an enormous amount of physical and also emotional development. Undiagnosed mental health problems in parents can have significant long-lasting consequences for a newborn child. I speak as the chair of the all-party group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences. It is crucial that we understand what can affect a child’s health from the start and take a trauma-informed approach to building back from the pandemic. Depression before, during and after birth is a serious condition. It can go unrecognised and untreated for nearly half of new mothers who suffer from it. That was the case before the pandemic, and my all-party group has recommended an extension of the six-week mental health check for new mums.
One problem is the narrative that motherhood is only wonderful, which leaves many women feeling unable to talk to health professionals about their emotional state. In my own pregnancies and births a long time ago now, I remember I did not dare to say that I felt rubbish, because it is often very difficult to cope. That was true before the pandemic and it was true many years ago. Covid has created additional challenges. Some 68% of new parents have said that their ability to cope with pregnancy or caring for their baby has been affected by lockdown restrictions. Not only has informal support from friends and family been much more difficult—we have heard many examples in this debate already—but formal services have been cut down, too. In the long term, we need to ensure that mental health checks for mothers take place across England and Wales. I also support the call for the Government to fund and provide additional targeted mental health support. They should certainly provide more funding to increase the number of health visitors. Again, I remember that the health visitor was a lifeline. Such contact is so important for new mums. All that is necessary if we are to avoid a lost generation because of the covid pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in such an important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the 337 people from my constituency of York Central who signed the petition, which aims to make things right for parents.
I want to put on the record how important it is to support women through their pregnancies. Will the Minister raise with colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care how essential it is that birthing partners and fathers are able to accompany the woman from pregnancy to birth—antenatal care, scans and hospital appointments—and for any care required after birth?
I will touch on two key issues. First, I thank the Petitions Committee for its report and its 23 recommendations, on which I want to reflect in the little time that I have. A constituent has written to me about neonatal care. She is a mother who gave birth 11 weeks early during the pandemic. That is so difficult, not least when her baby was moved to Middlesbrough, which is now in lockdown. She and her family need to be able to spend appropriate time to nurture and be with their baby. Bringing forward neonatal leave by two years would really assist her in that, and doing so now would help her even more. In the same way that the Government have moved at lightspeed to bring in so many measures during the pandemic, I ask that they bring in this important measure to support families in their time of need—April 2023 is too late.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and permanence, the second issue I want to look at is the current inequality between adoptive parents and birth parents. Will the Minister take another look at that inequality, not least in the Government’s response to the Petitions Committee report? We know, for instance, that self-employed adoptive parents are not entitled to an equivalent to the maternity allowance that self-employed mothers can access. They can ask the local authority for support, but they may not get it, and it is means-tested, unlike for birth parents. The 2016 independent review of self-employment in the UK highlighted that disadvantage, yet four years on, there has been no redress. I ask the Government: why?
Special guardians are currently not entitled to any form of parental leave or pay, yet they fulfil a crucial parental role. That creates real inequality: research shows that around half of kinship carers have to give up work to care for their children. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who last week published an excellent report about the real hardship that kinship parents face. We need to see real change. Labour would have introduced a year of maternity pay and leave, following best practice, and we need to get that right for all parents.
I urge the Minister to bring forward proposals to ensure that there is no inequality between adopters and special guardians, and birth parents. For many of those parents, bonding with their child and addressing the issues of attachment are so important if their families are to succeed and thrive in future. Despite their response, I ask the Government to revisit those issues to ensure that we can create strong families in future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact of covid-19 on maternity and paternity leave. As many hon. Members will know, and as we have heard today, being a new parent is an exciting, scary and, of course, tiring experience—it is rather like being a new Member in this place. Being new parents is a challenge at the best of times, when they have the support of extended family, can attend baby groups and can leave their homes when they please, but having a newborn baby in the middle of a lockdown means that all those challenges are multiplied. That is why Ministers need to recognise the unprecedented experience of those who have become parents during the pandemic.
We have seen various offers and support schemes, but those on parental leave have had no such offers—it is time that we did something about that. As we know, in the time that we have waited to debate the petition—I am very pleased that Westminster Hall debates are back—many of the affected parents have had their maternity or paternity leave pass them by, and they are now grappling with the challenges of childcare during a pandemic. Some of those who have contacted me have had very supportive employers, and that is welcome, but it is not guaranteed. I have heard from other constituents who have not been able to access childcare and who have to consider whether they can return to their jobs at all. Others have had no choice but to take unpaid leave. The Government have previously suggested furlough as an option for people who cannot secure childcare. Personally, I do not think that is the right answer at all. When the Prime Minister said that he would expect employers to be reasonable in such circumstances and that that would be sufficient, it betrayed his lack of understanding about the reality of workplace discrimination.
People who have returned to work have experienced a significant portion of their maternity leave during the national lockdown. The possibility of seeing extended family and friends and attending covid-secure baby groups has opened up, but there are no guarantees. As we have already heard, it is very unlikely that those things will be able to continue in the way we would want. With localised lockdowns, inter-house mixing has been prohibited for many people, and we can see how that affects them on a day-to-day basis. A comment that I received from a constituent has really stuck with me. She said:
“Some days are so difficult. I’ve barely slept, the house is a mess and there is a huge pile of washing to be done. All I need is my mum to come round and hold my son whilst I do this.”
Simple and helpful small interactions often make all the difference.
Baby groups and support from family and friends not only benefit new parents; they are vital for the development of new babies, who look to interact and form new bonds. There will be babies who have had contact only with their parents and not with other babies, and they will take time to adapt to new childcare settings. Even the thought of that—never mind actually doing it—is quite a traumatic experience for parents and their babies. As we have discussed, we know the impact that the early years can have on the rest of a child’s development.
Women who have given birth during the pandemic, and those who are pregnant at present, continue to contend with restrictions on attendance at scans and medical appointments and on access to services. I have heard from constituents who felt a void because they could not see their health visitor in person, and who have been left in pain and distress because they have been unable to receive support from breastfeeding services.
Maternity leave should offer new parents the opportunity to recover from birth and time to adapt to the challenges of a newborn. New parents face having to catch up on missed appointments at the same time as returning to work, and that has many practical implications. The discrimination facing women who are on maternity leave, or who are returning from it, is well documented. As we have heard today, those difficulties are exacerbated in the worst of times. We know it is not business as usual at the moment, so why should it be business as usual for maternity and paternity leave? We should have some changes before it is too late.
My thanks go to the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the debate. I thank Bethany and the maternity petitioners, Maternity Action, Pregnant Then Screwed and everybody who has been trying to help people at this incredibly difficult time.
This issue has had an impact on my family. My sister-in-law Suzanne had baby Fraser during lockdown—I understand that they may be watching the debate at home. Like all parents, they have been doing their absolute best in the most difficult of circumstances, and we are all so very proud of everything that they have done so far. However, it does not have to be this hard. If the Government took on some of the recommendations made by the Petitions Committee in its report, it would certainly make it a good deal easier for many parents and families right around the UK to look after their wee ones. It would make things just that wee bit easier at this very difficult time.
I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities. Over the past five years we have seen a worsening of an already precarious situation, with underfunded services, a patchwork of local support and volunteer groups doing their best—with very few resources—to support people when they are breastfeeding.
A report by Dr Natalie Shenker and Professor Amy Brown, which came out in the past few days, deals with this issue. They surveyed over 1,200 mothers who breastfed during the pandemic to see how they were affected by lockdown. Around 40% of the mothers said it had been a positive experience, because they valued the privacy and the time at home—perhaps having a supportive partner there, and perhaps getting a wee bit of extra time to do things. However, around 30% of the mothers surveyed felt that lockdown had been incredibly negative and incredibly difficult for them. They had felt isolated, abandoned and overwhelmed by the intensity of being alone with a baby for such a long time.
Although many of those mothers were able to breastfeed through that, many were not, and they struggled and gave up before they wanted to. The survey found that of the participants who had stopped breastfeeding, only 13.5% described themselves as ready to do so; they had given up before they had wanted to. Others had introduced formula when they had not intended to; the figure was 68.7%, with many of those doing so earlier than they had planned to. A staggering 70.3% attributed their decision to stop breastfeeding to the lack of face-to-face support. Some of that has been because of the lockdown and the restrictions, but the Government could have put a lot more in place to make the situation easier.
The National Breastfeeding Helpline has done incredible work, through its volunteers, to try to help and support people, but with some problems, people really need someone standing next to them to help them when they are feeding a baby. The Government need to do a lot more to resolve the issues of underfunding and the issues around health visitors, which have meant that people have felt very alone and scared when they have been on their own with a baby for a long period.
The situation has worsened existing inequalities within the system. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, people in poverty, people in small flats with no gardens and people with less educational attainment all found it more difficult to pursue breastfeeding when they really wanted to. I ask the Minister to look at these issues very carefully and see what more can be done to help and support people, not only now but in the future. Funding must go into these services.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I begin by thanking colleagues for their contributions, the petitioners for creating the petition in the first place and, in particular, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for the work of her Committee in bringing this issue to the House today. We should not underestimate the impact that the issue has on so many people. It was really encouraging to see so many sharing their experiences in record numbers with the inquiry.
Few issues can be more important to society than how we look after the health and wellbeing of pregnant women, new parents and newborn children, so it is great to see this matter prioritised on the first day back in Westminster Hall. It is a great pity that the UK Government’s response to the recommendations has so far been more of a shrug of the shoulders than a helping hand. I very much hope that the Minister is here today with renewed vigour for taking action. Simply saying that our system is among the best and most generous in the world will not really cut it for those who are struggling financially. Maternity allowances here are far from generous. Indeed, UNICEF ranks the UK among the least family-friendly of the world’s richest countries. It is a worrying thought that, unbound by EU minimums, we may see that under threat.
The Government response to this report so far suggests that they either have not grasped or are not concerned about the extent of the impact of covid-19 on the lives and livelihoods of pregnant women and new parents. It should be an easy decision to extend maternity leave by three months, at the very least, to ensure that those who have unfairly lost income, lost leave rights and lost access to health and dentistry services, to baby groups and to family and childcare support are not disadvantaged even further.
It is safe to say that the Prime Minister is in the advantageous position of undoubtedly being able to enjoy the benefits of having a newborn baby around through this period. That certainly brings much joy in a period of difficulty. However, it would be difficult to argue that he shares the experience of those who are struggling with poverty, low wages, insecure work and loss of access to healthcare support, or those facing discriminatory attitudes from an employer. We have heard from other Members about those who have seen their roles downgraded on their return.
In a survey of almost 20,000 mothers and pregnant women by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, 46% of those who were being made redundant blamed the lack of childcare provision because of the covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of real experiences are summarised in this Committee report, which I hope will persuade the Minister of the need for a more sympathetic response as we look to move forward. So far, the Government have been sluggish in responding to the recommendations in the report, waiting until September before even coming out to say no to most of them. We know that they can rush to react when they want to. They did not, for example, drag their heels in any shape or form when it came to getting rid of procurement rules so that they could splash billions of pounds of public money giving questionable contracts to private companies of their choosing, regardless of evidence of ability to carry out the job.
However, when it comes to the relatively small and inexpensive fixes that would ensure fairness for pregnant women and new parents, the response is far slower. For example, making sure that guidance is clear for employers and employees would stop people struggling unnecessarily and would save on the need for costly, time-consuming tribunals. On 16 March, the Government announced that pregnant women at work were especially vulnerable, but they did nothing to make clear the legal obligations under existing health and safety rules—that, if alternative safe work or working from home could not be secured for those women, they should be suspended on full pay. Instead, many were wrongly forced on to sick pay or unpaid leave, or were forced to use up their holiday entitlement or start their maternity leave early, affecting entitlement to statutory maternity pay for many and reducing their maternity leave when they needed it most.
The Government could have prevented that, but they chose to leave those things in a murky mess, allowing pregnant women’s rights to be ignored with impunity. When I asked how many employers the Health and Safety Executive had investigated and taken enforcement action against since March for breaching obligations to pregnant women, the answer, unsurprisingly, was none.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call for so many. The Government have had the opportunity to respond to the detailed inquiry undertaken by the Petitions Committee. On 8 April, the Chancellor said:
“When you need it, when you fall on hard times, we will…be there for you.”
I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to prove through actions, not words, that they are there for new parents.
It is a delight to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, and to see you back in the Chair in Westminster Hall, Madam Deputy Speaker. As others have done, I start by thanking Jessie Zammit and her husband James for starting this e-petition, and the 226,000 people who signed it. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) who, as others pointed out, took this issue forward and delivered a really important report. Beyond today, I hope the Government will take far more seriously the issues in the report and give us a much better indication of additional support for parents and families, as we head into what will, no doubt, be an even harder winter with coronavirus.
I briefly thank all Members, particularly those from the Opposition, for their contributions. We heard excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Newcastle upon Tyne North, for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).
Even before the pandemic struck, the system of support did not work as it should. There are too many inconsistencies in the support provided to employed and self-employed parents—or biological and adoptive parents, as we heard—causing some to miss out on vital support that is incredibly important at that time in their lives. The existing flaws have been exacerbated by covid-19, leaving many families in hardship and struggling. The Government’s response to the petition and subsequent report acknowledges that we are living through unprecedented times, but it does little more than express satisfaction with maternity and paternity support as it was before. The number of signatories to the petition speaks to the importance of parents’ and children’s wellbeing at this time, and to a real frustration with the inadequacy of the current provisions and the Government’s failure to provide sufficient additional support in the light of the pandemic.
The Petitions Committee’s report explains why the Government’s claim to provide among the most generous maternity support in the world is quite simply untrue, and why it is challenged by UNICEF, as has been mentioned. The report calls on the Government to 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, and whether to extend leave or provide hardship grants in the light of that evidence. The Minister should take on board that important call. The UK has seen rapid growth in self-employment in recent decades, so it is of great concern that significant disparities exist between employed and self-employed women. Self-employed women already face additional challenges and reduced incomes after having children. If both parents are self-employed, only the mother can claim an allowance and there is no paternity or shared leave for fathers, which means that caring responsibilities fall to the mother. The entitlements available to self-employed women compound rather than address that inequality. Unlike statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance is treated as unearned income and deducted from universal credit, sometimes leaving women up to £5,000 worse off. Can the Minister give any justification for that unfair discrepancy? I call on him to set out how the Government will address it.
That is just one of the many inequalities in entitlement brought about by an inconsistent welfare system, combined with an increase in precarious work. The Government have pursued an agenda of creating a deregulated gig economy, rolling back workers’ rights and fostering insecurity in work, which has left us in the worst possible position as we now face the devastation wreaked on the economy by coronavirus.
Following the announcement by the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer in March that pregnant women are clinically vulnerable, employers that were unable to make the necessary adjustments to ensure workplace safety were required to send them home on full pay, but many pregnant women were unlawfully put on statutory sick pay, which affected their maternity pay and other entitlements. Labour has previously called on the Government to discount covid-related spells on SSP for the period when earnings are used to calculate statutory maternity pay to ensure that pregnant women do not have their maternity pay cut as a result of being on SSP. It is unacceptable that the Government have refused to do that, and I ask the Minister to reconsider.
In fact, the Minister said that the women affected should simply bring an employment tribunal claim against their employer, despite knowing that that is not a realistic option, given the small window of opportunity for doing so and the huge and growing backlog in employment tribunal cases. Citizens Advice says that its advisers are seeing worrying cases of pregnant women who feel that they have been selected for redundancy because they need more stringent health and safety measures, and demand for the organisation’s discrimination advice page has increased fourfold.
I echo the report’s recommendation that the Government should consider extending to six months the period in which pregnant women and new parents can bring claims before the employment tribunal. Last week, the Ministry of Justice published new figures blaming the 31% rise in outstanding employment tribunal cases on an increase in unemployment because of covid-19. It also warned the Government that the decision to end the job retention scheme and replace it with a job support scheme will lead to a further spike at the end of October.
Given that one in four people are already living under regional lockdowns, and that a second national lockdown is a very real possibility, the issues highlighted by the petition, the report and this debate will not go away. It is not acceptable for the Government simply to restate that the support available is generous and sufficient. The evidence submitted to the Petitions Committee inquiry shows that that is not the case. Substantive ministerial action is needed and I call on the Minister to set out what steps the Government intend to take, considering the problems facing pregnant women and new parents that hon. Members have detailed today. It is simply unfair that too many have lost their leave during this period of lockdown, so the Government should look to what action can be taken. The issues raised here will not simply be dealt with in this debate; they require action from the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee on bringing forward this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on the way she has conducted it and reflected the campaign of the many petitioners. As she knows, I sat on the Petitions Committee for a number of years, so I know from personal experience how important and valuable it is.
I am sure we can agree that this has been an interesting and informative debate. I am grateful to everybody who has contributed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) both have previous experience that showed up in their comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) always speaks with common sense, and the rational and reasonable thinking with which he cut through these issues was very welcome. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) has not been in this place for long, I think she has a great future ahead of her. The professional approach and experience that she brought to bear made hers a particularly insightful and welcome contribution.
The online petition asked the Government to extend maternity pay because of concerns about the lack of opportunities for parents, and mothers in particular, throughout the lockdown. Petitioners pointed out the activities, such as baby groups, which could not occur during the lockdown, and how vital they are for children’s development. We have heard a lot about that in this debate. As a father, I know how important social contact is with family, friends and other new parents. It has been quite a while since my children were in their first months and years—they are now in their 20s—but I do vaguely remember those days a couple of decades ago, and just how important such contact is. It provides invaluable support at times of significant change, and I sympathise with new mothers and parents who have been unable to spend their parental leave in the way they envisaged prior to the pandemic and lockdown.
I recognise that new parents want to give their children the best possible start in life; it is what we all want, and I wholeheartedly agree that activities that support babies’ development in those early months and years are so, so important. We are all social creatures, including from a very young age, and social contact is important at all stages. Obviously, since that initial period of lockdown, we have tried our best to relax the social distancing rules that were previously in place. There have been stricter measures, yes, in some local areas as required, but as a result of those relaxations, including the introduction of support bubbles, more new parents are now able to spend time with family, friends and other new parents, while still respecting the social distancing rules.
The online petition that prompted the Petitions Committee’s inquiry and this debate asked for paid maternity leave to be extended by three months in the light of covid-19. As hon. Members have heard, the Government have not accepted the proposal. Maternity leave is provided to enable employed pregnant women and new mothers to prepare for and recover from birth, and to bond with their child, including through breastfeeding if the mother wishes to breastfeed. Up to 52 weeks of maternity leave are available, 39 weeks of which are paid, and all employed women must take at least two weeks’ maternity leave immediately after giving birth, or four weeks if they work in a factory.
Fathers and partners can take up to two weeks of paid paternity leave. They can also access up to an additional 50 weeks of leave, and up to an additional 37 weeks of pay where the mother does not intend to use her full maternity entitlement. Employed parents also have access to up to four weeks’ unpaid parental leave, and that is per parent, per child, so a couple that wishes to take additional time off work with their baby have access to an additional eight weeks of leave per year, and more if they have other children. I know that this leave is not paid, but it is also the case that all employees have access to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday in a year. The entitlement to annual leave continues to accrue while a parent is off work on parental leave.
We have talked a lot in this debate about the data and international comparisons. It is important to look at the fact that our maternity leave, rather than the parental leave that some people suggested, which is a day one right, is one of the most generous in the OECD. When looking at the time, as compared to the money per week and per month, there are other countries that have a shorter period. Although more money may be paid, often that is combined with social insurance and is therefore dependent on the contributions that the employers and employees have already paid.
As I say, it is the overall aspect of the right balance, in terms of maternity leave, between the time and the money that we believe is both generous and fair—getting that right balance as a day one right.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North talked about what we are doing to look forward with care in the early years. The Prime Minister has asked my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to carry out a review on how to improve health outcomes for babies and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That review will focus on the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life, from birth to age two and a half. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North says that she is on that committee, which is fantastic. I am looking forward to seeing what comes of that and what recommendations come forward.
On social groups for babies and children, I know how important baby and toddler groups are to new parents and babies, and how distressing it has been for parents to suffer through lockdown. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about GPs and what they can and cannot do in terms of health visits. There is a contractual requirement from 1 April 2020 for GPs to offer maternal post-natal consultation at six to eight weeks after birth—live and stillbirth—as an additional appointment to the baby check in the first six to eight weeks. The Government gave an additional £12 million, invested through the GP contract, to support all practices to deliver that.
On mental health, clearly this is a concerning time for mothers. It is important, as we talk about giving mental health parity with physical health, that we are committed to supporting everyone’s mental wellbeing, especially during this unprecedented period. New parents can continue to access mental health services, including virtually, and the Department of Health and Social Care has released more tailored guidance to help people to deal with the outbreak.
I will not, because I have literally only a minute left and I want the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North to be able to respond.
There is no way I can talk about all hon. Members’ comments in the minute that I have left, but as I said in my response to the core of the petition, the Government believe that the entitlement to 52 weeks of maternity leave and 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance is already very generous. I should perhaps add that those entitlements are provided to enable pregnant women and new mothers to prepare for and recover from birth and bond with their child.
We need to make sure that as we relax lockdown, there are new opportunities for new parents to spend their maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave in the way that they envisaged prior to the pandemic. The recent relaxations have been possible only because we took the difficult decision to introduce stringent social distancing measures, including lockdown. In fact, as we are now learning, we still need to be vigilant at maintaining social distancing, to protect lives.
In conclusion, may I thank the petitioners? We will continue to work on those first early years, to ensure that parents and children can get the support that they want.
I appreciate the Minister’s response, but I think that the petitioners will be incredibly disappointed in it. He talks about the relaxation of lockdown, but he is talking to somebody to whom the additional local restrictions apply. Most of what he said does not apply to new mums in my area and in many parts of the country, who are increasingly affected.
I want to highlight a couple of issues that were raised in the debate. I loved how the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) challenged our report for not going far enough and not demanding enough of the Government. I very much agree with her campaign, but it highlights how we tried to be reasonable in the report and ensure cross-party support and deliverable asks of the Government, which makes it more disappointing that most of them have been ignored.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) made an impressive speech, but it seemed to ignore the reality for many working mothers, which is that they do not have the agency to negotiate flexibility. They are deeply anxious throughout their maternity period, during this lockdown, about the future of their employment situation.
I want to make one final plea. I did not mention it earlier, because it is not in our report, but I very much support the cause of all new mothers having the flexibility to take birth partners with them into hospital. I want the Prime Minister to respond, as he promised to at the Liaison Committee, more fully to our report, and to make the changes necessary to ensure that every mother can have the confidence of having a birth partner with her in hospital.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 306691 relating to the impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave.
Thank you all very much for responding so well to the new way in which we are doing things in Westminster Hall. I shall just delay for a moment so that those who took part in the first debate can leave by the one-way system, continuing to stay 2 metres apart. Everyone is doing beautifully. As they do that, I hope that those taking part in the next debate will be coming in. I am taking things slowly to make sure that happens. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill).
Leaving the EU
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Order. As you have just heard Madam Deputy Speaker explain, we have of course only just resumed sittings in Westminster Hall. It will take a little while to get used to the procedures, but I am sure we will all get the hang of it if people observe social distancing. If Members think of it, wiping the microphones down on leaving will save the Doorkeepers some work.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 241848, 250178 and 300412 relating to the UK’s departure from the EU.
It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Sir David, and a privilege to open this important debate on the day when Westminster Hall debates resume. The petitions are on the subject of Brexit, and the first calls for a halt to it while a public inquiry is held. It has more than 110,000 signatures and states:
“The UK's departure from the EU looms but questions remain about the legitimacy of the Referendum. The Electoral Commission said illegal overspending occurred during the Referendum. Were the vote/any subsequent political acts affected? Article 50 was triggered. Was the overspend known about then? A transparent Public Inquiry is required, now.”
E-petition 250178 has more than 109,000 signatures and also seeks to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum. It also addresses the subject of alleged interference by “foreign actors and governments”, saying:
“This must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005).”
The third petition, e-petition 300412, has more 107,000 signatures and states:
“The government should consider delaying negotiations so they can concentrate on the coronavirus situation and reduce travel of both EU and UK negotiators. This would necessitate extending the transition period; as there can only be a one off extension, this should be for two years.”
These petitions mean different things to different people. Some see a halt to the transition period as necessary for the safety of the public, while others see it as a further attempt to delay Brexit by those who oppose it. From my own personal experience, the vast majority of my constituents would fall into the latter category, as almost three quarters of them voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. They would not want a further delay, after four and a half years of delays and false starts, unless it were completely unavoidable.
As far as the majority of my constituents are concerned, the United Kingdom’s 47-year-old membership of the European Union ended on 31 January 2020. However, it is not as simple as that. We are currently in the transition period, which ends on 31 December, and, contrary to points made during the 2019 election campaign about oven-ready deals, things are far from oven-ready and simple, particularly on the trade deal front. As we have seen over the past two weeks with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which has already prompted legal action from the EU, the prospects of a no-deal Brexit are very real.
The Government’s final opportunity to request an extension to the transition period, provided for under the withdrawal agreement, came and went on 30 June 2020. Many would argue that 11 months is already a tight timeline for a complex deal to be negotiated, ratified and implemented, and that does not take account of the covid-19 crisis, which has soaked up much of the UK and EU Governments’ energies. That has led to a number of calls for the transition period to be extended, including the petitioners in e-petition 300412. The petition calls for a pandemic delay, which is perhaps the most compelling reason at the moment.
The Government have much to reassure the public about before leaving the EU in the middle of the current pandemic, and this petition argues that it is simply common sense, in the light of covid-19, to seek an extension, so that important matters can be given the proper attention they deserve. These matters include healthcare workers’ status and rights; imports of medicine, new testing kits and personal protective equipment; the import and export of goods and food; and travel arrangements across borders. I am sure hon. Members will raise these points in the debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response. It is common knowledge that the negotiations were delayed earlier in the year by the pandemic and I would welcome a more in-depth response from the Government as to how they believe that has affected the UK’s readiness for Brexit.
There are important lessons to be learned from campaigns in the run-up to and during the 2016 referendum. E-petition 250178, on foreign interference, points to the serious questions raised by the Russia report, commissioned by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee. This includes the potential influence of some senior figures within the leave campaign. I would personally welcome a further independent inquiry into that, as called for by the petition, as the Government’s response to the Committee’s report has been lacklustre, at best, so far.
I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that faith in public institutions is at rock bottom at the moment. It is of the utmost importance that, as a matter of public service, we ensure that some mistakes can never be made again. If there was foreign interference, it is vital that we establish to what extent, and what measures can be put in place to avoid such an event ever occurring again. We could make a start by banning the hiring out of the Prime Minister for a game of tennis, for example. However, the timing of an inquiry need not necessarily derail the Brexit process.
I cannot vouch for other constituencies—I have no doubt that Members will be keen to enlighten me—but I wonder how many people in my constituency, where, a year prior to the referendum, a UKIP candidate beat the Tory candidate into second place in a general election, were convinced by foreign propaganda in the referendum campaign to vote leave. Frankly, it would not have changed anything in my constituency.
Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign group, was judged by the High Court to have broken campaign spending limits during the referendum and therefore to have broken the law. This followed on from an earlier decision by the Electoral Commission and is central to e-petition 241848 in its call for an inquiry into campaign spend. Campaign spending has a great impact on elections and voting, as all MPs will fully understand. If overspending occurs, as was the case with Vote Leave, or it is suspected, the Electoral Commission should investigate it as a matter of course. This follows an initial decision by the Electoral Commission to investigate Vote Leave, but not Darren Grimes of BeLeave, a campaign organisation in receipt of substantial donations from Vote Leave as part of a joint plan, according to the High Court.
We must establish the facts and ensure that all political bodies in the United Kingdom act with the integrity that the law demands. With Vote Leave already having paid a fine of £61,000, it would be in the public interest to know how it affected the result of the campaign in some areas. However, again, using that as a pretext to halt the Brexit process would be seen by many as a tactic to deliberately delay. There is little certainty in much Government policy, but one thing appears to be unshakable: the Prime Minister is sticking to Brexit come what may.
In conclusion, all three petitions have merits that warrant discussion, and all three highlight important issues that require greater transparency and clarity. The Government must make much more of an effort to restore faith in themselves both among the public and in Parliament. Delaying Brexit again is likely to further widen the divisions in our society and our communities. However, to do so without a cast-iron guarantee on imports during the pandemic and without knowing beyond doubt the legality of the actors in the winning campaign, especially in the teeth of the current pandemic, might also harm society. I urge all Members to consider those points carefully.
It is an absolute delight, Sir David, to be back here speaking in Westminster Hall after quite a long adjournment in this Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for leading this debate, although I find it ironic, given his past challenges in explaining the Labour party’s policy on Brexit.
The 2016 referendum was the largest expression of democracy in our British history, and the largest mandate of any Parliament in terms of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave. The petitioners represent less than 1% of that figure. A Government with a large majority has been elected on a mandate to get Brexit done. We have now left the EU, thankfully, and, at the end of the transition period in January, Brexit will be fully completed.
Yet we still see Opposition Members trying once again to hamper Brexit, as they have done in debate after debate, calling for delay after delay—delays for which I have never voted, and which the British people do not accept. I do not think that anyone would ever have imagined that it would take nearly five years to complete the process—that is quite long enough, according to my constituents.
The public have been clear in their feelings about a Parliament that did not fulfil the democratic wishes of the British people. We have seen enough of the delay and uncertainty that the last Parliament brought to our economy and our country. The transition must not be extended, because by doing so, we will never bring about conclusion or any certainty—we have had enough uncertainty. The British people—certainly my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South—would not accept a further extension. We should certainly not trust the view that an extension is required because of covid. We all know the real reasons why people want the transition extended further.
Labour and other parties opposite continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. Even now, they question what people thought they were voting for and the legitimacy of the process in its entirety. How much have their views changed since the promise to honour the result, whatever the outcome might be? It goes to the heart of British democracy that we honour and trust the decisions of the British people who elected us to represent them in this place.
I know that my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South do not feel that they have benefited from their membership of the EU. They feel that although other areas have moved forward, they have been left behind. What was the only year in which the UK was a net gainer from our contribution to the EU budget? Surprise, surprise, it was 1975—the year of the common market referendum. That is slightly more than a coincidence. My constituents knew exactly what they were voting for when they overwhelmingly backed leave: an end to being controlled by the EU; an end to sending to the EU every year vast amounts of money that we never get back; and an end to free movement for proper control of our borders. That is exactly what this Government are now delivering. The Government’s focus on levelling up will ensure that all communities, in every part of our country, can prosper and succeed.
As I have made clear, I hope that we secure an ambitious free-trade deal with the EU at the end of the year, but whatever the outcome—deal or no deal—it must provide a clear end state and certainty, allowing our country to move forward once and for all. Unlike many Opposition Members, I very much have confidence that our country, our economy and our Government will get through this and flourish in the future.
It is delightful to see you in the Chair, Sir David, and to be back in Westminster Hall. I agree with most of the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). First, I would like to declare three unremunerated interests: I am a board member for the Centre for Brexit Policy; I am on the advisory board for the Foundation for Independence; and I was, until just after the referendum, a board member of Vote Leave.
I ask hon. Members inside and outside this Hall a simple question. We have seen a two-pronged attack on democracy since the decision in 2016, which, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, was the single largest vote in our history. Most people in this country would be absolutely horrified if President Trump challenged a victory by the Democrats in the United States and it went to the courts, but that is exactly what has happened in this country. Many of my hon. Friends who care passionately about this and wanted to stay in the EU simply do not see it in those terms. That two-pronged attack on democracy has come from hon. Members, both from my party and from others, who want to overturn the decision, and from the EU itself, which is less surprising, because it is a non-democratic body that has used many tactics to make it painful for this country to leave, as a warning to other countries that might want to leave. So, I will start with that point.
I will also say that we have left the EU, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) has said, but we are still in the transition period and subject to the withdrawal agreement. I hope that we get a Canada-plus style of free trade agreement, which was on offer at the beginning of this process, and it is another element of bad faith from the EU that that has been taken off the table, as has giving this country third-country status, which is real bad faith.
I hope that we can get that type of arrangement, but it is vital that the final leaving agreement is sovereign-compliant. We need control over our fishing and over how we subsidise our industry, if that is what we choose to do. This country subsidises industry, providing so-called “state aid”, at about half the rate of the rest of the EU, so it is not a big problem.
However, it is vital that we have control of our own laws. That is why people voted to leave the EU, so we need the final leaving agreement to be sovereign-compliant. And we must not have overhanging liabilities that are unaccounted for, to be determined by some future decisions that the EU might make to give us more financial commitments. Finally, regarding the conditions for leaving, we must not be subject to the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, we will not be a truly independent country.
I have supported the decision to leave the EU in many votes in the House of Commons. I did not support the final withdrawal agreement, because I never believed that there should be the possibility of Great Britain being separated from Northern Ireland. The EU has exploited that situation and weaponised the historical situation in Ireland to try and keep control over our laws, so I hope the Government can get an agreement that does not lead to the splitting-up of the United Kingdom in those terms.
In introducing the three petitions, my hon. Friend referred to the legal action that is being taken. It is the most curious legal action. I am not a lawyer, but who has ever taken legal action against a Bill passing through this House that is yet to become law? It is extraordinary. Indeed, it is not only extraordinary in that sense; it is extraordinary in that it goes against the EU policy itself. In the Kadi I and Kadi II decisions—a complicated case adjudicated on by the European Court of Justice—the Court came to the conclusion that
“the obligations imposed by an international agreement cannot have the effect of prejudicing the constitutional principles of the EC Treaty”.
So the legal action is not only absurd in its first terms; it also goes against the way that the EU deals with its own policy.
I think it was mentioned that several court cases found that actions taken by parties on both sides have been in breach of the law. That is wrong; it should not happen. There is no general election or local election that I have ever been involved in where there have not been problems; that is just what happens in the heat of the campaign. Regarding Vote Leave, the Electoral Commission gave Vote Leave bad advice, and it ended up in breach of the rules, and it has paid a fine for that. I do not believe any of that affected the outcome. The single biggest factor in cash terms was that the Government paid £9 million effectively to put out a remain leaflet, which dwarfed all the rest of the expenditure.
I will finish by swiftly dealing with the petitions. There is the petition that cites covid as a reason for delaying the implementation. I understand at least one motivation behind that. The fact is that if we can control our own laws and regulations, we are in a better position to respond to any crisis immediately and not to be bound by the European Union’s bureaucracy. I will give an example: it took about 18 years for the EU to change the clinical trials directive, and lot of jobs went out of Europe because it was so slow. In order to build our economy after covid and to deal with it now, we need to be completely in charge of our rules and regulations.
I do agree. I will not get into a debate about covid, but we need to be spritelier than we have been in response to this crisis, and being in charge of ourselves is the best way to do it. I have previously said that both sides have been found to have been in breach of the regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned foreign interference. Did the biggest interference in terms of publicity—when President Obama came over and asked people to vote remain—make any difference? I suspect in many cases that boosted the leave side of the debate.
This country has decided to leave the EU, and we have to get the best deal possible. We have to ensure that we get it to be sovereign-compliant, and not let the EU carry on with what are effectively imperialistic policies. It wants to carry on controlling our laws and regulations. It wants to keep us paying, without our having any say whatever in the creation of those laws and regulations.
My first ever Westminster Hall debate is on the subject that got us here in the first place. As the first ever Conservative MP to represent Don Valley, an area which voted 69% in favour of leaving the European Union, I felt compelled to speak in the debate because two of the petitions that we are debating, which are now over a year old, demand a public inquiry into the 2016 referendum. The vast majority of my constituents and I believe that the motives behind the petitions are not entirely sincere. Instead, I believe that the petitions were established and signed because people—petition data show that they reside mainly in the southern metropolitan areas of the country—could not accept the referendum result. We really need to move on.
Since the 2016 referendum, some members of the political elite have treated 17.4 million people with complete contempt. Large sections of the media and political class actively tried to rob those people of their voice. Some politicians and journalists stated repeatedly that the desire of the majority to leave the EU was impossible. By the beginning of the last general election, some said that the referendum should not have taken place in the first place, and one major party even promised to cancel Brexit altogether. Meanwhile, petitions such as the ones we are debating were used to grind Brexit to a halt. Through inquiries, people who remained upset at the referendum result sought to overturn the largest democratic exercise in this country’s recent history. That was despite the fact that, after the referendum, Parliament overwhelmingly voted to proceed with the Brexit negotiations. Some 80% of the votes cast in the 2017 general election were for parties that supported our departure from the EU.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing. I believe that the last election, when many of my hon. Friends and I were elected across the country, is confirmation that petitions such as the ones we are debating do not have the popular support of the people. The 2019 election decisively confirmed that the public did not want to stall Brexit, and indeed that they did not want endless inquiries into allegations that had no substance; they wanted to get on with Brexit and deliver the referendum result. However, we now see renewed calls to halt Brexit, this time due to coronavirus, yet again because a small minority continue to cling to the hope that they can prevent the will of the people.
I, for one, find it awful that my constituents’ views yet again appear to have been discarded, but I make it clear to the good people of Don Valley and across the north that their voices will be heard, and that the Government will get on with Brexit. The Government have already confirmed that they are fully prepared to leave the EU with an Australian-style deal at the end of this year. With coronavirus likely to be with us for many more months or even years to come, why wait? After all, we gave the public the choice in a referendum and two general elections. I think they have made themselves quite clear, so let us get on with what I and many others were elected to do less than a year ago—let us get Brexit done.
I have many reasons to be proud of my constituency of Bath. One of the most important to me is its long tradition as an open-minded, welcoming and outward-looking city. Bathonians want this country to reflect those values, which we hold close to our hearts. Bath was one of the constituencies with the most signatories to the petition to halt Brexit for a public inquiry. In 2016, 68% of Bath residents voted to remain, putting us in the top 50 remain-voting constituencies in the UK.
Just days after the referendum, a handful of us residents founded what became one of the most active grassroots campaigning organisations in the country, Bath for Europe. We came together as a non-party political group of volunteers campaigning for the UK to remain at the heart of the European Union. I was a founder member of Bath for Europe before I was elected the MP for Bath. We were ordinary people achieving extraordinary things. We donated our spare time, talent, creativity, knowledge, experience, ideas and resources to keep the cause of Europe front and centre, both locally and nationally.
In addition to organising rallies, marches, speakers, events and regular meetings, perhaps our biggest achievement was our constant engagement with members of our community. Every week, we held street stalls and commuter calls, handing out leaflets and discussing Brexit and what it would mean for our city and our country. We did our research, and we respectfully listened to people, some of whom had opinions very different from our own. We spoke to them in a positive spirit. We became a fixture in Bath, and our constructive dialogue helped to lift the public discourse.
Among the most damaging legacies of Brexit have been the deepening division in our society and an aggressive culture war that seeks to pit people against each other. Bath for Europe stands for equality and fairness. For example, this spring, the group held a virtual EU citizens fair to support those applying for settled status. Bath for Europe remains a force in our city. The people of Bath will continue to uphold the values of openness, inclusion and international co-operation, and I will use my voice to represent their views in Parliament.
It is important to stress that we should not fight lost battles. No EU membership is now a reality. That does not mean that there are not many millions of people in the UK who believe that our place is at the heart of the European Union. Their voices need to be heard too, and I am one of them. Passionate supporters of a football club do not immediately switch sides to the club who won the premier league. They stay loyal to their side through the years, even through relegation, and prepare for better times.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I absolutely understand that democracy needs to play itself out, and I do not want to reheat the battles that we had for two and a half years in this Parliament.
However, we have argued again and again that the decision made in 2016 was unclear. We need to make it clear and discuss to the end whether what people understood they voted for in 2016 is really what they wanted. The result is now there, I accept that; we had a very clear election result, and we are now no longer members of the European Union. That is why I say that it is no use to now fight lost battles. But we have a passion to be at the heart of the European Union, and almost half of the people of the UK still believed that going into the 2019 election. They have not suddenly gone away. The winning side has to accept that too, therefore the debates that we continue to have here are not undemocratic. They are part of democracy. People have their voices heard.
EU membership at some point in the future continues to be a Liberal Democrat ambition. I firmly believe that our time will come, but in the meantime I will stand up for all EU citizens here in the UK and for UK citizens in Europe, and make sure that they can live with all their rights undiminished. That is what I now fight for: to keep the flame alive that our place as the United Kingdom is at the heart of the European Union. I will not give up on that belief, and I do believe that our time will come.
It is a great pleasure to be here. In fact, it is such a pleasure that this is the second debate in a row that I have stayed for. I was down to speak in the first debate and when Mr Speaker’s Trainbearer said, “Do you want to speak in the second one?” I thought, “Yes, I might as well get my Westminster Hall score back up.” In the original referendum—gosh, that was so many years ago—I was somebody who voted remain. When I looked at these petitions—the ones to halt Brexit for a public inquiry, extend the transition, and look at foreign interference—my first reaction was one of utter exasperation. To see that covid was mentioned as the excuse for doing these just defied belief.
There is an organisation in Europe that is far more liberal, in the best sense of the word, and far more open to ideas coming in. That is the Council of Europe. It is also almost twice the size of the EU. Has covid stopped its work? Does covid mean that nobody does any monitoring of the appalling human rights situations that exist in certain countries? I am the rapporteur for Turkey in the Council of Europe, and we are holding—it is difficult—inquiries on Zoom with non-governmental organisations in Turkey to make sure that we understand what the Turkish Government are up to, and to say no to them. So the idea that covid is responsible for this is for the birds. It does not hold any water at all. It is a bit of a cheek, actually, to put all three motions together, particularly given the legal bar on extending the transition. Why on earth we should halt Brexit, I have no idea. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) that it is time to move on, and that is exactly what I want to do. I do not want to sit in this place for another three or four years debating Brexit. I have had enough of that. I had enough of that in the last Parliament, and I do not want to go through it again. The country made that decision spectacularly, and I am not going to do that.
But I would raise one issue: the difficulty that we have of conducting these negotiations in open session. Every negotiation is conducted in open session, with people briefing journalists on either side as we go through. The reason for that is that there is a fundamental problem with the dispute resolution mechanism set up when the withdrawal agreement was agreed in the first place. All the effort in that agreement was down to arbitration, which is not an enclosed area. It should not have been straight into arbitration. They should have had, first of all, a process of mediation which is incredibly discreet. Anyone who has been through a commercial mediation will know that they should not blab to a journalist or anyone else about what is happening during that mediation. If I were doing this again—not that I did it, but if we were going through it again—I would strongly recommend that the Government go for mediation. Of course, it is not in the interests of the EU to do that; it does not understand the concept very well.
That is really all I want to say about this, except for one thing. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) mentioned the amount that the leave campaign that was fined. The first organisation to be fined for not keeping the proper accounts and not declaring the right amount was the Liberal Democrats, who were fined £18,000 by the Electoral Commission.
I wanted to take part in this debate not because I am trying to stop democracy in its tracks or because, as a brand-new Member of Parliament, I have not had the two or three years of debating Brexit and am desperate to have my fair share, but because my consistency of Twickenham appeared in the top 10 constituencies for all three of these petitions. I know from the result of the referendum, in which 67% of my residents voted to remain, and the humbling and overwhelming result in my favour in the general election, which was largely fought on Brexit, when the good people of Twickenham, Teddington, Whitton, St Margarets and the Hamptons put their faith in me, that the majority of my residents are pro-European and they want me to give them a voice. That is what I am here to do.
It is fair to say that, like me, many are heartbroken that we have left the European Union. They genuinely felt that for economic as well as social and emotional reasons that the UK should remain in the European Union. Many of my constituents are, like me, outward-looking and internationalist in perspective, and have enjoyed the freedoms of being able to live and work in the European Union and fall in love without borders, and simply wished the same opportunities for their children.
Of course I accept, with a heavy heart, that we have now left the European Union—I do not deny that the electorate spoke very clearly in December—but I still fundamentally believe that no deal that could be negotiated could be as beneficial as continued membership of the European Union. I am deeply worried about the long-lasting damage that Brexit will cause to this country’s economy and standing in the world.
The petitions refer to covid, and in particular I want to speak about the third, on extending the transition period. I and my party have vociferously called for that not because we do not accept the result and we want to delay it ad infinitum, but because businesses and business organisations—we are talking about not the Council of Europe, but people who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat in the middle of a pandemic, when jobs are being lost hand over fist—have said time and again that, if we were to end up in a no-deal situation at the end of the transition period, it would be impossible for them to put in place all the infrastructure they need for their supply chains.
Businesses in my constituency say to me that it is the uncertainty of delay after delay that is causing the most damage to our economy and businesses. Does the hon. Lady agree that a further delay from extending the transition period would only prolong that?
There are two types of uncertainty. Crashing out without a deal at the end of the transition period is complete uncertainty, in terms of the unknown. Although there may be some uncertainty from extending the transition period, at least businesses are able to continue to trade easily. One of the issues that I want to touch on is medicines, about which the industry has spoken out very clearly in the past week or so.
The Government’s choosing to pass the deadline for extending the transition period, as we hurtle towards a potential no deal, was reckless and a monumental act of self-harm for this country. I want briefly to touch on three points. First, on the rights of EU citizens and naturalisation, I am concerned, given that we have already seen some rolling back from commitments in the withdrawal agreement, that the rights of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK are at risk. In my borough of Richmond upon Thames, we have 14,500 EU nationals who are applying for pre-settled or settled status under the EU citizenship scheme. Back in May, the Home Office snuck out some guidance that made it harder for those with settled status to secure British citizenship. That has thrown several individuals’ futures into the air and, unfortunately, despite my letter on the topic to the Home Secretary on 29 May, I have yet to receive a response.
Absolutely. The business situation is also a human situation, because we are talking about the loss of jobs and livelihoods.
I want briefly to touch on agriculture and food standards, because my inbox has been overflowing with emails about this issue and the many concerns of constituents about the potential for undermining those standards as we enter into trade deals. The Liberal Democrats and others have consistently tried to amend the Agriculture Bill on its passage through Parliament to protect our standards, but the Government have refused to acquiesce on the point. In the case of the Trade Bill, they are refusing any democratic or parliamentary scrutiny. I am not sure how that is taking back control.
In the final area I want to touch on, I must declare an interest. Prior to coming to this place, I worked for nine years in the pharmaceutical industry and I still have a small shareholding in Novartis Pharmaceuticals. On medicines and health in general, it is clear that there is no oven-ready deal as promised back in December. In the midst of a pandemic, people are rightly worried about their health and several constituents have written to me about their concerns about the UK leaving the European Medicines Agency at the end of this year and what that might mean for the licensing of a covid vaccine or treatment. They are also concerned about us leaving the EHIC––European health insurance card––scheme that means that we can get treatment abroad and European citizens can get treatment here. The point about medicines and vaccines regulation applies equally to non-covid treatments.
Before anyone intervenes, I appreciate that the Health Secretary has made an announcement today about the UK collaborating with the US, Canada and other regulatory agencies on cancer medicines. That is welcome and I congratulate the Government on that, but we must remember that the UK is only 3% of the global pharmaceutical market, so if we go our own way on medicines, British citizens will be further back in the queue for new medicines and treatments. Let us not forget that. The deal announced today is only for cancer treatments and there are many other disease areas where British citizens risk being left behind and missing out on innovative treatments.
More pressing is the concern raised by European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry last week. With a supply chain already hit by the challenges of covid during the pandemic, they are very concerned that if we end up with no deal at the end of December, there could be real supply chain issues with medicines crossing the Channel. They have called for an urgent mutual recognition agreement to ensure that important tests and inspections are recognised either side of the Channel.
There is still a lack of clarity about how the Northern Ireland protocol will work in terms of regulated products such as medicines if no trade deal is in place and how medicines shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be treated on the other side of the border. While the deadline for securing an extension to the transition period has passed––though where there is a will, there is a way, so if there were a last minute change of heart, I am sure that the European Union would be all ears––it is imperative that in the short time remaining we secure the closest possible alignment with the EU in terms of customs, of regulations on medicines and other regulated products and of our food and agricultural standards. And let us not forget people––how we treat our EU citizens and how our citizens are treated in the EU.
Thank you, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak in this debate on three very important petitions. Each of them, as you mentioned at the beginning, has been signed by more than 100,000 people, and they show the depth of feeling surrounding these issues. It is also, I believe, a great demonstration of democracy in action that people in the street—the public—can have their views heard in this salubrious building.
With your permission, Sir David, I will briefly address all three petitions. The first is “Halt Brexit For A Public Inquiry”. It states:
“The UK’s departure from the EU looms but questions remain about the legitimacy of the Referendum. The Electoral Commission said illegal overspending occurred during the Referendum. Were the vote/any subsequent political acts affected? Article 50 was triggered. Was the overspend known about then?”
These questions remain unanswered. A significant focus for this petition is questions of overspending, its affects and the timing of the release of information relative to the triggering of article 50. There is little doubt, as the Electoral Commission insisted, that more than one group broke electoral law and spending limits, in some cases by quite substantial amounts. It is less clear what the effects have been. A poll by Opinium in 2017 suggested that 26% of Brexit voters felt that they had been misled by promises during the campaign, and that voters in that sample would by then have voted 47% to 44% to remain.
With regard to subsequent political acts, this seems a most serious concern. Evidence gathered and analysed by the Institute for Government in March 2019, but also supported by many other commentators since, points to dramatic consequences. This is not the place for the detail, but an introductory paragraph from the report, referring to the effects on Ministers, civil servants, public bodies, money, devolution and Parliament, states:
“In each area, we find that the challenge of negotiating, legislating and implementing Brexit has called into question how government works in the UK. The roles of the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, of civil servants and their departments…and of parliamentarians and the devolved administrations”
have all seen their roles considerably affected and changed significantly during this period.
As for the timing of article 50, it was invoked on 29 March 2017. One month earlier, on 24 February, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Electoral Commission was investigating the spending of Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe, so clearly rumours of an overspend were well known to the Cabinet before article 50 was invoked. It is therefore my belief that there is sufficient doubt about the legitimacy of the referendum result surrounding spending limits and the political processes undertaken during that time to warrant a formal investigation and that Brexit be halted. I therefore fully support the petition to halt Brexit for a public inquiry into these matters.
I am aware of that, and I await the outcome with some excitement.
The second petition calls for the establishment of a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum. It states:
“There is now strong evidence of serious misconduct during the 2016 EU Referendum, including interference by foreign actors and governments. This must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005).”
There are certain reports of interference. The Intelligence and Security Committee of this Parliament published a report on the interference and concluded:
“The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered.”
It also concluded that the Government’s response was not fit for purpose. It was unacceptable that the Government delayed the publication of that very important report by a year.
Ciaran Martin, the then head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, confirmed that Russian hackers had attacked British media, telecoms and energy companies over the past year. That the UK Government have regularly avoided looking for evidence is certainly cause for suspicion, but that in itself is not solid evidence of interference. Similarly, their being able only to refer in a press release to suspects as “Russian hackers” does not allow us to form a strong or firm conclusion that foreign actors or Governments were involved.
Where there are strong suspicions in any area of national security in the context of the protection of our democracy, further investigation must take place in the public interest. I believe that that case has been made, based on those strong suspicions; that there is sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation into the circumstances; and that it would be best taken forward by a public inquiry. I therefore add my support to petition 250178, to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 referendum.
Finally, the third petition seeks to extend the transition and delay negotiations until after the coronavirus outbreak has been dealt with. The Government must consider delaying negotiations so that they can concentrate on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the resultant health, economic and social upheaval and the unprecedented circumstances that we currently face, which can only be dealt with by a Government with a clear, single focus on the problems on a massive scale that have been caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Doing so would necessitate extending the transition period; there can only be a one-off extension, which should be for two years. There is, of course, an obvious case to be made for extending the transition period.
Notwithstanding covid, the UK is clearly not ready for a hard Brexit. Up to 7,000 trucks carrying goods from the UK to the EU might face two-day delays after the Brexit transition, according to a letter from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Lloyds and Barclays were among the first UK banks to give notice to UK citizens living in the EU, warning them that their accounts will be closed on 31 December unless there is agreement. Border control posts at Northern Ireland ports will almost certainly not be ready in time, according to Stormont Minister Edwin Poots. Make UK estimates that UK firms will have to complete 275 million customer forms, up from 55 million, at a cost that HMRC has estimated at £15 billion a year.
I strongly believe that if we asked the public today whether they think we should delay Brexit, even for those reasons alone, a majority would agree. Some Brexiters would not, of course, as we have heard today—getting Brexit done, for some, is more important than dealing exclusively with the current pandemic that engulfs this country and threatens us all with dire and unimaginable consequences.
Public opinion, especially that influenced by our right-wing media, is not necessarily the best basis for policy development. By the Government’s own admission, any deal would be only a bare-bones trade agreement. Their own analysis says that there will be a GDP hit of up to 9% over the next 15 years if we further disadvantage our economy as we seek to recover from covid. All those factors require the undivided attention of Government, without the distraction of contentious negotiations about the arrangements to be put in place at the end of the current transition period. I therefore add my support to petition 300412, to extend the transition and delay negotiations until the coronavirus outbreak is brought properly under control.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for the way in which he opened up our discussion, and other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.
The concerns raised in the petitions probably reflect the time at which they were launched, which was several months ago. The priority now is to look at the challenges that we face with just weeks to go before the deal that we need on our future relationship with the European Union has to be concluded.
On the issues raised in petition 300412, Labour pressed the Government, perhaps with some prescience, to give themselves some flexibility, when Parliament debated the withdrawal agreement Bill, and we tabled an amendment to that effect just in case unforeseen events might lead to the Government needing some wriggle room. I have to say that at that time we did not anticipate a global pandemic, but nevertheless we made that case. Our amendment was rejected, and the departure date was locked in law. The Government could have changed it before 1 July, but they did not, and neither did the European Union propose a delay.
We left the EU on 31 January, and we will leave the transition period on 31 December. We accept that completely, so I have to say that I share some of the exasperation of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—if not for the same reason—at some of the contributions from Government Members and the allegations that they are making about the position of the Opposition. They should—we all should—have some humility and some honesty in looking back at the paralysis in Parliament over the last four years, and recognise that many of the delays were caused by the way in which the Conservative party was tearing itself apart on this issue and that some of those who delayed a deal being reached were those described, I think, by a former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer as the Brexit extremists within his own party. Indeed, the Prime Minister was utilising the issue as he egged them on in his rise to power. But we are now into the final month of negotiations, and both the UK Government and the EU are clearly seeking a resolution within weeks to secure the deal that we need by 31 December.
The other two petitions raise real concerns, and they were clearly exacerbated by the Government’s handling of the report from Parliament’s Conservative-chaired Intelligence and Security Committee, the publication of which was deliberately and unnecessarily delayed by the Prime Minister until after the general election. It was damning in its conclusion that the Government
“had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.
As one of its members said when the report was published in July,
“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum, because they did not want to know.”
There are real issues that deserve consideration, but they cannot halt Brexit, as the petitioners seek, because we have, as a number of Members have acknowledged, already left the European Union. That is the result of the mandate that the Government received in last December’s election, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) mentioned, but it is only one half of the mandate. The other half is to deliver the deal that the Prime Minister promised the British people. That pledged an
“ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership”,
“no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”.
It pledged a deal that would safeguard
“workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”
and keep people safe with a
“broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership.”
That was not a proposal or a wish list, but an agreement—and one that was ready to sign off. In the Prime Minister’s words,
“We’ve got a deal that’s oven-ready. We’ve just got to put it in at gas mark four, give it 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”
Originally, he said that it would be done by July, despite the pandemic, and then, forgetting his words, that it would be done by September. That came and went too, so he set a new ultimatum of mid-October, which he then dropped over the weekend after his conversation with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen.
As a number of Members have said, businesses need clarity. The Government are providing confusion. The same incompetence that we have seen in the handling of the pandemic is now threatening jobs and the security of our country through the handling of these negotiations.
In previous debates during this long discussion, my hon. Friend and I have disagreed. Today, I essentially agree with the approach that he has taken, but is he not being a little asymmetric? It is his job to attack the Government and criticise and analyse what they do, but does he not feel that one reason why there is not an agreement now is that the EU has withdrawn what it offered right at the beginning—a Canada-style agreement—and has also withdrawn the recognition of this country as a third country, which was previously on offer?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is right that we have not always agreed on these issues over the last four years, but we are in roughly the same place now, in wanting to secure a deal by December—not just any deal but the deal that the Government have pledged. That deal was not described by the Prime Minister as something that might be achieved; he said it was there, ready to go and we just had to press the button. I will return to the specific question of Canada, because it is important.
Is it not also true that it is unfair to say that Brexit was not done in the last three years because of all the people who wanted to delay it, when it was the Tories and the Conservative Government who did not get the deal done? They dithered and argued among themselves, and even decapitated their own Prime Minister. Is it not true that the Conservative party was also to blame for Brexit not getting done for such a long time?
Indeed, that is the point I was making a moment ago. The agony within the Conservative party, as it tore itself apart, was a significant delaying factor in getting the deal done.
As a number of Members have said, businesses require certainty. We welcomed the Minister back to her place at Cabinet Office questions last Thursday, and I am delighted to see her on the Front Bench today. I will ask her four specific questions, to which I would be grateful for a reply in her closing remarks.
First, can the Minister guarantee to the automotive sector that it will not face any tariffs from 1 January, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s promise, despite the apparent decision by the Government not to press to secure an agreement on rules of origin?
Secondly, can the Minister assure the financial and legal sectors, which are hugely important to our economy, that the Government’s deal will allow them to do business without new barriers, as the Prime Minister promised?
Thirdly, can the Minister guarantee that there will be no weakening of the arrangements that we have had within the European Union to keep the UK safe from serious international crime and terrorism, and, in particular, that we will retain access to systems such as the European criminal records information system, which shares data about prior convictions across EU countries?
Finally, returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), given that the Government have insisted that they want a Canada-style deal, which raises the question of why that is off the table, would the Minister confirm that the Government would be willing to accept the non-regression clause provisions within the EU-Canada deal on workers’ rights and environmental protections? Those are precisely the points that were ripped out of the withdrawal agreement after the December election. If the Government were prepared to accept those, it would be a gamechanger in the negotiations.
Those are straightforward questions because they are all based on promises made by the Prime Minister, so it should be relatively simple for the Minister to say yes to each one of them. If not—I hate to think it—the Government might not have been telling the truth.
The coronavirus pandemic, which is referenced in e-petition 300412, makes it even more important that the Government deliver the deal that the Prime Minister promised, to support jobs, the security of our country, business and people’s livelihoods. As we look to the future, rebuilding from the devastating impact of the virus, we cannot face the additional problems of a disruptive departure from the transition. Covid-19 has taken people’s bandwidth in the civil service, politics and the EU. Businesses have not been able to prepare in the way that they would otherwise have done, because their capacity has been stretched.
It was unfortunate that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his recent statement to the House, tried to point the finger of blame at businesses for not being prepared. They are not helped by the unanswered questions that remain. Businesses around the country have reasonable questions about trade not only in goods, but in services. The agricultural sector has questions about health, food safety, standards and checks. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) talked about the problems of the pharmaceutical sector. I have talked to many other sectors in my role. Businesses representing critical sectors of the economy simply cannot get a hearing from this Government.
The Government have maintained throughout the coronavirus crisis that they could deliver a deal in the timeframe they have allotted themselves. They will be judged by that promise. As it stands at the moment, they need to get a grip and deliver the deal: not any deal, but the deal they promised last December; the deal that we need for the country to move on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. This is my first Westminster Hall debate since returning from maternity leave. I feel I should have contributed to the previous debate on what it is like to raise a baby during a pandemic as I am a little more qualified.
I have a strange feeling of déjà vu, as though nothing has changed in the year I have been away, but of course many things have changed. We have had a general election and we have left the EU. The language that we used in talking about Brexit today, as if it had not happened, is a little out of date.
I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for presenting the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and for speaking on the three petitions. Hon. Members have put their arguments across with a great deal of vigour, but not rancour, which is a refreshing change from the previous Parliament.
In responding to the calls in the petitions to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum, or halt Brexit for a public inquiry, or to extend the transition period and delay negotiations, I can state that there are no plans to do any of those things. Two of the petitions focus on alleged breaches of electoral law in the 2016 referendum, but the allegations have been rightly investigated and dealt with by the Electoral Commission, the independent regulator. The case is now closed. Our focus should not be on returning to the divisions of the recent past, but on this country’s bright future.
I will consider various points in further detail: the evident legitimacy of the EU referendum, our stance on foreign interference, the important role of the Electoral Commission, and our future focus and ongoing negotiations with the EU. First, let me deal with the evident legitimacy of the EU referendum. Others have highlighted this today, but I shall repeat it: 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. More people voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything else in the UK. It is a pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who is a product of that will of the people.
People from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to leave the European Union. That clear mandate from the people of our Union has since been rightfully respected and delivered. Ignoring the referendum result would have been deeply damaging to British democracy. We saw the damage that the past three years of indecision in Parliament caused. Additionally, the legality of the EU referendum is beyond doubt. It was carried out based on legislation passed by Parliament with clear and repeated commitments from the Government to implement the outcome. The EU Referendum Act 2015 was scrutinised and debated in Parliament for more than 34 hours. The provisions relating to the conduct of the referendum were carefully scrutinised and ratified by Parliament.
More recently in the 2019 general election, the British people cast their votes once again and elected with a substantial majority a Government committed to upholding the result of the referendum. Following the election, Parliament voted with clear majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. On accusations of foreign interference, I emphasise that it is and always will be an absolute priority to protect the UK against foreign interference and maintain the security and integrity of our democratic processes. It is absolutely unacceptable for any nation, including Russia, to interfere in the democratic processes of another country, and we take any allegations of interference in the UK democratic processes by a foreign Government very seriously. We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum. However, we will continue to safeguard against future risks, strengthen our resilience, and ensure that the regulatory framework is as effective as possible. The Government are committed to making sure the rules work now and in future. In July 2019 we established the Defending Democracy Programme, bringing together expertise and capabilities from across Departments, the security and intelligence agencies, and the civil service, to ensure that UK democracy remains open, vibrant and secure. As announced in the Queen’s Speech, we are bringing forward new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools that they need to disrupt hostile state activity.
Now I will turn to the important role of the Electoral Commission, which is the independent regulatory body responsible for ensuring that referenda are run effectively and in accordance with the law. The Electoral Commission has the right to conduct investigations into alleged offences, and to take action when offences have been committed. Such investigations are, rightly, independent of the Government. The Electoral Commission did indeed undertake investigations into the EU referendum and, regrettably, levied fines on multiple groups on both sides of the referendum campaign. In addition to the fines levied against leave campaigners, remain-supporting groups such as Unison and the GMB also breached political finance rules, and were fined by the Electoral Commission for failing to deliver an accurate spending return. More serious matters were referred to the police, who investigated them further and, again, found no evidence of criminal activity.
Focusing on the future, we have now entered the final phase of negotiations with the EU. Last week the ninth round of negotiations took place. There were positive discussions in the core areas of a trade and economic agreement—notably trade in goods and services, transport, energy, social security and participation in EU programmes. However, significant differences remain, notably on the level playing field and fisheries. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster provided a written ministerial statement earlier today with an update on this round of negotiations. The Prime Minister spoke to President von der Leyen on 3 October to review the progress of negotiations. They agreed on the importance of finding an agreement if at all possible, and instructed the chief negotiators to work intensively to try to do so, given how short the time now is before the European Council on 15 October, when we hope we can find an agreement.
I am afraid that while I would like to answer with some specifics on the negotiations, it is a little above my pay grade, so I cannot do so on this occasion. Since the last round of negotiations, as set out in terms of reference, UK negotiators have continued in formal discussions with the Commission in Brussels and London. We have been clear from the outset about the principles underlying our approach. We are seeking a relationship that respects our sovereignty and has a free trade agreement at its core, similar to those that the EU has already agreed with like-minded countries such as Canada. As the Prime Minister has set out, there needs to be an agreement with the EU by the time of the European Council meeting on 15 October in order for it to be in force before the end of the transition period on 31 December. By then, if there is no agreement, there will not be a free trade agreement. That would mean that we would have a trading arrangement with the EU more akin to Australia’s. That would still be a good outcome for the UK. It would represent our reclaiming our independence as a sovereign nation. That is what the British people voted for twice. That said, we remain committed to working hard to reach an agreement by the middle of this month.
The Government were elected on a manifesto that made it clear that the transition period would end on 31 December 2020. That is now enshrined in UK law. At the second meeting of the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee on 12 June, the UK formally notified the EU that it will neither accept nor seek any extension to the transition period. Our position remains unchanged. Under no circumstances will the Government ask for or agree to an extension of the transition period. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Lord True have kept both Houses informed of progress throughout the negotiations.
I would like now to turn to some of the issues raised by colleagues in this vigorous and lively debate. I welcome the work that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) is doing to give her constituents a voice. It is right that we bring everyone together, in this next stage of our country’s journey. The International Trade Secretary has repeatedly given assurances on food standards. The Trade Bill is about the roll-over of existing FTAs; it is not about future ones.
I appreciate the contribution from the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans). I have always found it peculiar that his party has such distaste for the results of referenda at the same time as they call for more of them, and that they can so unreservedly champion petitions as a democratic device over a good old-fashioned election result.
I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool for the gracious way in which he acknowledged that the majority of his constituents do not want to overturn the referendum result. He asked how the pandemic has affected the readiness of businesses. That has clearly been a challenge, and it was also raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). Unfortunately, the pandemic has meant that businesses are, rightly, thinking of many other things. We are keen to get the message out that things will be changing for those who deal with the EU, whether or not we get an FTA. That message needs to be rammed home, because there is sometimes a misunderstanding in this place that everything will be the same if we get a deal. That is simply not the case, which is why we have done a lot of work on transition readiness. We now have a transition checker on gov.uk that people can go to for information on how to get ready for January, and I encourage people to look at it. We will also publish an updated border operating model this week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) rightly reminded us that we have left the EU. The public have made their views known about further delay, and we will not extend the transition period.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) drew an interesting comparison with the United States. The Government share many of his ambitions for how any future relationship should protect our sovereignty.
I welcome the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley in his first Westminster Hall debate, and on a subject about which he feels so passionately. He says we need to move on, and I agree. There is a difference between a petition and an election, as I mentioned earlier. In December, the public made their views clear.
I note that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is vastly more popular in her constituency than her party is with the rest of the country; I think that is because she makes her case so gracefully. I share her regret over the division that we have seen in recent years. I hope we can move on, united over the love that we have for our country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) shared his exasperation that we have to reheat what is now a very old debate. I welcome his valuable work with the Council of Europe.
I wish to thank again the hon. Member for Hartlepool for securing the debate. We have heard a number of arguments on this topic, but I remain entirely unconvinced that we need to launch a public inquiry on the EU referendum or that we should halt Brexit, extend the transition period and delay negotiations. Indeed, the Government have absolutely no plan to do any of those things. Clear legitimacy underpins the EU referendum from the 17.4 million people across our Union who voted to leave and the legal scrutiny that was applied to the European Union Referendum Act 2015. In addition, we have made it clear on a number of occasions that we have not seen evidence of successful interference in the referendum, and allegations of electoral overspend have rightly been investigated and dealt with by the Electoral Commission. We now need to focus on our bright future, negotiating our future partnership with the EU and forging trade deals with the rest of the world.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank the petitioners for achieving over 100,000 signatures on each of the petitions and therefore ensuring that such petitions—within the rules of the House—get debated. I also thank the Front Bench spokespersons, especially the Minister, for clarifying the position of my constituency. It was the largest leave-voting constituency in the north-east. As an individual MP, I represented their interest all the way through.
That takes me to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), whose predecessor was in the same position as I am. We have to remember that these are not party-political debates; they are petitions debates. As a member of the Petitions Committee, I am impartial, irrespective of my views and opinions. I hope I have got that across, because time and again they are seen to be political. That travels into the newspapers, which is not in the interest of Parliament or the petitions system in its own right.
I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), and the hon. Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for Henley (John Howell) and for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for their interesting contributions to the debate. It is good to be back in our places in Westminster Hall, and I hope that the petitioners forgive us for mixing the petitions together. Covid has impacted on the Petitions Committee’s operations; hence the need to prioritise this.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 241848, 250178 and 300412 relating to the UK’s departure from the EU.
Just before colleagues leave, I want to say that it is very good to be back in Westminster Hall. There are teething problems, particularly with the way I chaired proceedings. Please leave through the door that is marked “exit only”. The Chairman of Ways and Means said that, to save the Doorkeepers coming in, you should wipe the microphones if you have touched them; the wipes are next to Graham Stringer. It would help. If you have any other observations about the way that this session did or did not work, please let the Chairman of Ways and Means know. Thank you.