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Cost of Living: Parental Leave and Pay

Volume 734: debated on Monday 19 June 2023

[Relevant document: Summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee, on the cost of living and statutory parental pay, reported to the House on 12 June, HC 73.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 617155, relating to the cost of living and parental leave and pay.

It is a real pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. The petition asks the Government to

“Increase statutory maternity pay in line with cost of living crisis.”

I am sorry that this debate unfortunately coincides with events in the main Chamber that are taking the attention of an awful lot of Members as they debate the Privileges Committee’s report on the former Prime Minister. The situation does rather highlight how important matters that concern the people we represent do not get the attention they need in this place or in Government because of the issues that are being debated today.

This very important petition also asks the Government to

“Review statutory maternity pay in line with inflation and cost of living.”

It notes that the

“cost of living has been increasing across the UK since early 2021”

and that the impact of inflation on

“the affordability of goods and services for households”

has been significant.

Raising a child is a gift. I am fortunate to know from experience the joy of being a parent, just as I also know the many challenges that parenthood can throw up. I want to outline, on behalf of the petitioners who brought it to our attention in Parliament, the fact that the gift of parenthood is being eclipsed for many by the mire of spreadsheets, cost cutting and the damaging health effects of the cost of living, which has shot up over the past year or so.

The petition’s creator Nicola Sheridan, who is here with us today, counts herself very fortunate. She is a meticulously organised professional who made many plans in advance of having her baby. She looked at the many costs and saved up for a safety net so that she could take a full year away with her son Harry. But while she was following the news during her pregnancy, that first year of their life together, which she had so carefully planned, was continually thrown into doubt by soaring costs. Excitement was replaced by fear and anxiety. I am grateful to Nicola for sharing her experience of the spiralling costs that many parents face, as I know having heard from them ahead of this debate.

Nicola’s experience is far from unique. The number of signatories to the petition indicates that there are many parents who have either experienced the same level of anxiety or share the same concerns. Charities and campaign groups have also been campaigning on the issue, and understandably so. I am grateful to Pregnant Then Screwed, Maternity Action and the Institute of Health Visiting. When I met them prior to this debate, they impressed on me the stresses that parents are feeling; I will expand on that point in more detail later in my speech. Alison Woodhead and Katharine Slocombe from Adoption UK shared the distinct pressures that adoptive parents face. Dr Alain Gregoire from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance set out clearly the scientific case for early years investment. The Child Poverty Action Group stressed that inequality has worsened and is being embedded by a lack of support for low-income parents. From all the people I heard from, one message was resoundingly clear: failing to adequately support new parents in the face of the worst cost of living crisis for generations will have profoundly damaging consequences for parents and children in both the short and the long term.

The headline inflation figure remains stubbornly high at 8.7%, after a peak of 11.1% last October, but inflation is only half the story. It has been concentrated in the fundamentals that new parents rely on: heat, food and personal care goods. The spiralling cost of energy has been widely reported, and has outsized food inflation, which rose to 19.2% in April this year. What has received less attention is the startling rise in goods essential for looking after a newborn. Since March 2021, the cost of formula milk has risen by 24%, with the cheapest own brand option increasing by 45%. Last year, in the 12 weeks to 19 August, the price of Pampers rocketed by up to 60%.

Meanwhile, statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay and maternity allowance have risen by 10.4%. It is not hard to do the maths. There are two primary concerns about how the uplift is calculated and administered. First, the uplift comes in only once a year and uses the consumer prices index from the six months before. As a result, by design, the money that new parents receive from the Government will be out of step with what they actually need. Secondly, many feel that the financial support for new parents is simply not enough anyway. The current statutory rate for parents is £172.48. Compare that with the minimum wage for an average 37.5-hour week, which comes in at £390.20. When the added costs of a new child—cots, prams, clothes, food and formula—are considered, many parents are left with big holes in their budget.

The support for parents is not generous at the best of times. The UK has one of the least generous support programmes for new mothers among OECD countries, with only Ireland and the USA offering less. Add a near-unprecedented cost of living situation to that state of affairs, and we are not far off a crisis. I know that it is easy to slip into a jumble of numbers when discussing the cost of living crisis, so I will focus on the reality for parents, especially mothers, on the ground. We know that women still provide the majority of childcare, and significantly more than men. When we talk about the impact of the cost of living on parents, we absolutely must include fathers in that, but we have to focus on the stress and strain of raising a baby, which is often borne by mothers.

While preparing for the debate, I spoke to a group of really inspiring and strong mothers from Newcastle, alongside the charity Children North East. The reality of modern motherhood that they painted was fraught with challenges. Stress was a recurrent theme, as mothers described the anxiety that rampant inflation is causing them. It is making budgeting almost impossible. Mothers dismiss the Government’s promise of free childcare as a myth, as cost pressures are forcing nurseries to charge for nappies and food, and the number of hours and weeks covered by the Government’s scheme does not match working reality. For those mothers, labelling it as free feels rather like an insult.

One mother spoke vividly of being a new mother as

“one of the most challenging moments in your life”.

Her overarching view was that

“it’s just so stressful—everything is new, your hormones are all over the place”.

Even if you do make a plan, the stress can be overwhelming. She said that

“we are going to end up with a mental health crisis and we’re going to ask why.”

That is even before she has factored in the struggles with budgeting. Add the impact of being a new mother, on top of wondering whether you can even afford formula for your baby, and the stresses and strains that new parents are under become very clear.

Soaring prices and a lack of support are leaving mothers on the brink. I fear that the Government just do not get the reality for new mothers on low household incomes. The Government’s response to the petition justified current statutory pay levels, saying that they are

“higher than the level of other out of work benefits”.

That line rankled with many mothers, and not without cause. Being a mother, especially a new mother, is far from being out of work. Motherhood is work. One mother told me that

“it’s the hardest thing that you’ll ever do in your life”.

You are left alone, weakened after often traumatic childbirth with a tiny person you are entirely responsible for keeping safe and nurturing. Waking up throughout the night to feed them, breastfeeding, changing nappies, playing games, placating them when you have no idea what is wrong—the Government would do well to stop calling that being out of work.

For many prospective mothers, fathers and adopters, the joy of adopting and welcoming a child has been subsumed by anxiety stemming from financial concerns. Paired with this, the tightening of budgets leads parents to spend less on heating and less on healthy food, which affects their mental and physical health as well as the mental and physical health of their child.

In preparation for this debate, the Petitions Committee conducted a survey of petitioners, made up largely of current parents and prospective parents. Some 93% of new parents who responded thought that Government support was inadequate, and a staggering 89% of new parents recorded difficulty in accessing basic equipment like a pram. Faced with such crippling financial hardship, mothers are missing meals, going without heating and cutting down on all spending on themselves. One parent told us that

“the lack of financial support is a constant stress and worry”,

while 92% of parents reported financial difficulties in accessing social activities as basic as visiting family and friends. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these social activities. Raising a child is a full-time job and can be incredibly isolating; moments of happiness can be interspersed with periods of profound loneliness, stress and vulnerability. Family and friends provide that vital relief and support. Taking away a mother’s ability even to visit people can prove overwhelming.

Some 97% of new parents who responded to our survey were concerned about the impact on their mental health of having a child. We are already seeing a decline in parents’ mental health. In January, the Institute of Health Visiting found that 83% of health visitors reported an increase in perinatal mental illness. We must be clear that financial and mental stress also have a direct impact on children. Dr Alain Gregoire, who has studied the impact of early adversity on children, has found that from the moment of conception onwards, poor maternal mental health has an impact on babies, leading to worse outcomes across health, educational attainment and happiness later in life. The stakes are incredibly high, and we are storing up problems for the future if we do not address this. Any Government who look at the evidence have to conclude that early years support for parents and children must be a priority.

It will be little surprise to Members that the cost of living is having a disproportionately large impact on the poorest mothers and babies in our society. We already know that inequalities lie at the root of poorer outcomes for pregnant women and infants, but these are now being compounded by the cost of living crisis. Some 91% of health visitors have observed an increase in poverty affecting families, alongside an increase in families needing food banks.

I have spoken before in this place about the impact of poverty on child development; it is a big issue in my region, and the number of children growing up in poverty is staggeringly high. But it is a vital point and is worth repeating: poverty leads to worse educational attainment, worse physical health, worse employment prospects and worse life expectancy. Poverty even leads to a higher risk of neonatal death.

These outcomes cannot simply be accepted. The Government have a responsibility to act. For example, Healthy Start vouchers are an important lifeline for struggling parents, allowing them to access nutritious food that we know is vital for child development. After the digitalisation of the scheme, take-up was more than 10% short of the Government’s own rather modest target of 75% in March, yet there is no clear plan to improve the uptake. It is well within the Government’s scope to change that. I hope that the Minister will respond specifically to that point.

Furthermore, as Pregnant Then Screwed and others have pointed out, the UK has one of the most complicated parental pay systems among developed countries, resulting in many parents missing out on the support that they are entitled to. Difficulty in accessing Government support is particularly acute for adoptive parents: they are not entitled to the same support as other parents, and self-employed adopters have no statutory right whatsoever to parental pay, so even when support exists, access is clouded in uncertainty. Self-employed adoptive parents can apply to local authorities for grants, but whether that money is given or withheld is entirely discretionary. The all-party parliamentary group for adoption and permanence has found that 90% of adopters said that their social worker had failed to advise them to apply directly to their local authority, so even those who are working in this field cannot work out the system.

Adopted children are already especially likely to have specific and costly needs that can take a significant financial toll on adoptive parents, and the cost of living is making the situation worse. Nine out of 10 prospective adopters told Adoption UK that the cost of living is having an impact on whether they choose to adopt. Of course it is. This is the impact of the cost of living: the children most in need of loving and supportive families are being left in homes and in foster care. Government inaction has meant that a child’s start in life could be determined by nothing more than their postcode. The next generation will be defined permanently by today’s inequality if we do not take action.

I have heard from a mother who spent most of her time applying for the support available worrying that she was getting it wrong. She was so nervous about having it clawed back that she cut her access to some of those support payments. Even when parents are entitled to support, the lack of clarity and the complexity in the system cause great anxiety for parents, on top of the sleepless nights looking after their children. It is probably the sleepless nights that are inducing the anxiety. It is a vicious cycle for many parents.

Inequality becomes embedded early and is self-fulfilling. Intervention at the earliest possible stage is our best defence against it. The earlier the intervention, the earlier the rolling snowball of inequality is halted. Money today will have drastic positive benefits further down the road. It is not just wishful thinking; game-changing early investment has happened before and could work again. Sure Start, introduced by the last Labour Government, led to around 13,000 fewer hospital admissions in older children each year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. At a time when our NHS is severely overburdened, the case for early intervention could not be stronger.

The next Labour Government will introduce free breakfast clubs for all primary schoolchildren, a vital investment that will ensure children have access to healthy food and have a full stomach so that they are ready to learn. Let us remember that many parents who have taken time out to have a baby will often have older children they are trying to feed as well. This is the kind of investment in the future that we will see after many years of inequality.

We know that in the earlier stages of life, time spent with parents is vital for children. What is more, parents want to spend time with their children. Research by the Trades Union Congress found that one in five dads are forgoing all paternity leave because of financial concerns, while mothers are being hurried back into work because statutory pay simply does not go far enough.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent and powerful speech. Does she agree that with statutory paternity and maternity pay levels so low, at less than half of full-time pay at minimum wage, parents are not being given any choice? Choice is so important. As she says, research shows that in the early days of a baby’s life, having a parent at home, whether it is the mother or the father, is critical. Given the cost of living crisis in which people are struggling with mortgages and soaring food prices, people just cannot afford to take the option of staying at home. They are being forced back to work before they want to go back.

I absolutely agree. The hon. Lady raises the dreaded mortgages issue, which I have not even touched on, but that is a cliff edge looming for many families, if they have not already gone over it.

One of the mothers we spoke to told the Petitions Committee survey:

“I and many other women felt they had to go back to work at 6 months because it wasn’t possible to continue”.

No mother should have to go back to work for any other reason than that it is right for them and their family, and right for them in their career. If they want to stay off work for the full statutory entitlement, that should be their choice, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly pointed out.

Those first months with a newborn are irreplaceable—you never get that time back—yet unsupported parents are being left with no choice. That is the key point. Some mothers may want to go back much earlier, and that is their choice, but the difficulty is that for parents who want to stay off for longer, their choice is often taken away by the reality of soaring prices and a shortfall in support. Mothers are being stranded in an impossible situation, completely torn in two by their work and their childcare responsibilities, and many parents who go back are finding how unaffordable it is because of the soaring costs of childcare. For so long, the motherhood penalty has suppressed mothers’ earning power and independence. That short period of time when they have a small child at home can affect their earnings for the rest of their career and life.

Several mothers in Newcastle spoke to me about the isolating impact of fathers being required to return to work, unable to take the parental leave that many mothers would love to see them take. One mother even said:

“As a Mam, when you’re left on your own after 2 weeks it’s terrifying.”

I remember that feeling. Another described the claustrophobia of being left with her children day in, day out without respite. She said:

“You see your husband going out the door to work and you want to race out the door with him.”

Frightened and alone, new mothers are being let down. A broken childcare system, fathers feeling as if they are unable to take leave, and the negative mental and physical health impacts of raising a child, amplified by the cost of living, are confining women back to their homes. The gender inequality that we should have left in the distant past is creeping back into our lives, and it feels as if the Government are asleep at the wheel.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being very generous. I am passionate about the question of fathers, because in families up and down the country, including my own, fathers are taking the primary responsibility for looking after children. I am proud that it was the Liberal Democrats in government who introduced shared parental leave in 2015, but sadly the take-up has been far too low. We need to build on that by improving pay. We should make parental leave for all mothers and fathers, whether they are employed or self-employed, a day one right. Does the hon. Lady agree, and does she agree that paternity leave should also be increased from the short period of two weeks? On average, it is about 10.4 weeks across advanced economies.

The hon. Lady speaks very passionately about the impact of parental leave. I am not here to make policy for either the Government or Labour’s Front-Bench team; I will leave that to the two Front Benchers who are here to speak on behalf of the main parties. But I can speak for the petitioners. One mother who spoke to me said that increased paternity pay and leave would be

“the dream, it would have stopped it being all on me.”

I think that quite often the petitioners, who have brought us all here today, say it better than many of us could.

The Petitions Committee has previously highlighted the further action that must be taken to protect expectant and new parents from redundancy, by making it illegal from the moment employers are notified to six months after maternity leave is over. We are proud of the work we have done to see some of those changes in Government.

I want to ask the Minister a few questions about the issues that I have raised; I am sure she has been scribbling notes already. Will she commit to reviewing the way in which statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay and maternity allowance are calculated, so that the pay better reflects the rate of actual inflation and so that the money that parents are getting is not diminishing before their eyes? That seems to be the source of a huge amount of anxiety, as I am sure the Government appreciate.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that every mother knows the support that they are entitled to? Too often, parents seem to lack the information necessary, or they are given incorrect information and miss out on vital support. Will the Minister consider equalising access to statutory parental pay for adoptive parents, including those who are self-employed? Can the Minister account for why the take-up of Healthy Start vouchers remains below Government targets? What are the Government doing to improve that? It is within their gift to do so.

Finally, what recent assessment have the Government made of the impact of maternity pay rates on social health outcomes for new mothers and babies? It is important that we monitor what can be assessed, and outcomes for children can be clearly assessed in age two developmental assessments. Sadly, indications are that they are getting worse, not better. The petitioners would certainly indicate that improving support for new parents would improve outcomes in those age two development assessments.

The status quo does not need to be permanent. Yes, we are in a cost of living crisis, but we can change it. We can change it for the youngest people in our society to ensure that it does not have long-term negative consequences, but that requires the Government to listen to the concerns raised by petitioners and take action. It is a complex issue, and a multitude of stakeholders will be engaged in it. However, at its core is that profoundly important experience of raising a child. If our society allows having a child to become unaffordable, fewer people will choose to have children. One new parent told us:

“Having children in 2023 is no longer a choice you make with your partner, it’s a calculation on a spreadsheet”.

That is the cold reality of modern parenting in the UK. Western societies are existentially threatened by ageing populations, falling birth rates and the need to pay pensions, yet our Government are standing by while this car crash happens in slow motion. The cost of living crisis has shined a sharper light on a situation that was already becoming untenable.

To return to Nicola, the petition’s creator, it is a broken system when even the best prepared mothers feel that they have no option but to create a petition to get the Government to listen and do something. Through no fault of their own, children today are being born into precarity rather than stable, financially secure homes, with parents burned out by stress and isolated by incomes shrinking relative to inflation.

I urge the Government to look seriously at what can be done for new parents, whether that is following up on the recommendations of petitioners by linking statutory pay to the cost of living, by expanding paternity leave or by ensuring that more support is available for new parents in other ways. One thing is clear from the plethora of evidence I have taken ahead of this debate: doing nothing is not an option.

As the mover of the motion said, it is unfortunate that this debate has possibly been affected by events elsewhere, but none the less we are blessed to have the omnipresent Jim Shannon. I call him now.

I am going to lead the charge of the Back Benchers all by myself. I do not intend to speak for too long; I will do my customary 10 minutes or thereabouts. It is a joy to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who set the scene incredibly well with her knowledge as a mother. That brings a real example to the debate, but she also spoke on behalf of all the other mothers out there who have to make these difficult decisions. We have had a number of debates in which the Minister has been in a position to respond. I know she grasps these things very well, and I am very hopeful that we will get the answers to our questions.

The cost of living is difficult for so many people, but especially for young families. I am thankful that we have a form of maternity leave in this country, unlike other developed nations such as the United States, which is severely lagging behind. However, if we look at other nations, we can see that we are not so far forward after all.

When my wife Sandra and I married in 1987, we both wanted children and that was our decision—in a different age, let us be quite clear. I had my own business, which meant that I was able to afford that. It ensured that, along with Sandra’s say-so, she could stay at home and look after the children. My three boys have grown up to be wonderful young men. I cannot take any credit for that—my wife can. They are three young men who are established. They have their own wives and two children each. We are very blessed to have that.

As an elected representative, one thing that affects me in the office is when people come along and I can see the pressures of finance. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) mentioned the mortgage issue, and I watched the news last night, Mr McCabe, about the effect of mortgages on people when their tenure comes to an end. I really wonder how people will afford it. Last night’s news illustrated that costs were going from 2.9% to 5.6% as well as the costs that had accumulated over all the years. They are massive! One of the mortgages last night was an accumulation of some £26,000 and the other was an accumulation of £14,000. People cannot just click their fingers and make that money appear. There is no money tree at the bottom of the garden that money can be picked off like leaves—we live in the real world—so I understand the burden that is coming down the road.

There are financial worries when people get that wonderful news—or not so wonderful news, as sometimes happens. That does not change their love for the child, by the way—I make that quite clear. [Interruption.] People are always very pleased. I wanted three boys—my wife was not quite so sure, but there you are. When people’s families expand, there comes the natural worry of how the money will stretch. That was never as true as it is today. We hear stories from the people who come to our constituency offices, tell us about their burdens and troubles, and ask us how they can get help.

I read an article by Smart Cells, which encourages parents to consider the storage of baby stem cells—life is moving on, and there are different ways of doing things and new technology. That article worked out, from independent data sources and research online, that families in the UK spend about £6,000 during the first year of their baby’s life—wow! That will be the price of some people’s new mortgage rate, so that becomes a big problem. That cost is for the mummy who is able to breastfeed. Many do, but those who cannot must add on the cost of milk, sterilising equipment, bottles and so on, and there are endless other costs that can become real burdens.

The Smart Cells budget includes £350 for a year’s worth of clothing. My wife is a grandmother now—we have six grandchildren. The last, Ezra, was born in October, and is now eight months old. He is a lovely wee boy—I do not say that just because he is my grandchild—and we love him greatly. I cannot understand how my son, Luke, and Rachael can find the money to look after Ezra when they already have wee Freya. They wanted two children, but at the end of the day a real burden comes with that.

I believe I am in touch with the normal families in my constituency. My sons are in the baby stage, and I know from them and my wife—Sandra tells me this all the time—about the financial strain they are under. My oldest son, Jamie, told me at the weekend that he had to fix his car. It needed new brakes, a new battery and other work done, and all of a sudden it was £600. That comes out of his month’s wage. His new mortgage rate will have to be paid; that money has to be found. That is where we are. For some, the parents are able to step in—the bank of granny and grandad is sometimes really important in helping with the purchase of a pram or a cot—but for many families, the strain is obvious. The matter of statutory parental leave must be addressed.

Way back in 1987, when Sandra and I got married and our first child arrived, my mother presented us with us with a cot that she had kept. It was the same cot that I was reared in. Nothing is ever thrown out in our house, so we got the benefit of that. We still have it, and we will pass it on to the next generation. That is what Ulster Scots people do: we make good use of what we have.

The rates at which the statutory payments for parental leave are made come in two types. One is 90% of the person’s normal weekly earnings, and one is a flat rate, which is currently £172.48 a week. The payments are at the 90% rate for the first six weeks, followed by whichever is lower of the 90% rate or the flat rate for the remaining 33 weeks. A child benefit entitlement is also paid, which covers the cost of nappies and wipes for many children—never mind the additional heating. You cannot have a cold house for a new baby—it cannot happen. That is not on. There are so many things that people need to have for their baby, and we must understand that. Those extra costs become real issues.

If a family is working, their entitlement to a Healthy Start maternity grant is severely limited. Perhaps the Minister may be able to speak about that, because it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, who set the scene so well. The Government have not upped the earnings brackets in line with inflation, and yet again it appears that those who are hardest hit are those on low incomes. These are changes that must be made—and made soon. If I were to ask the Minister for one thing specifically, it would be to ensure that the Government respond. In that response, I hope that the Minister can give us some encouragement and help. For some women, the thought of returning to work after a year is difficult, while for others staying off for more than their six weeks at 90% is impossible. It is clear that more must be done.

I will give a brief snapshot of some other countries. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned, Bulgaria offers new parents an incredible 410 days of paid leave. We should be matching Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s maternity leave covers 90% of the employee’s salary through social security. All the Scandinavian countries are equally generous when it comes to maternity leave, and Norway is no exception. Norway has a flexible option that allows new mothers to take up to 59 weeks on maternity leave paid at an 80% pay rate, or 49 weeks at full pay. Again, I give those as examples because I think it illustrates what other countries are doing and where they see the need to help. The father can choose to take up to 10 weeks, or no leave at all, depending on the wife’s income.

Those countries seem to accept the importance of enabling family units to learn to be family units at the hardest times. When a crying child enters a home, we know that we have to reach out to help. The pressure on mum and dad is incredible. When the weight of today’s finances is added in, many families cannot take the strain. It is my belief that we in this place must seriously consider our obligations and increase the maternity allowance and the statutory maternity payment for every person. We should not simply accept that those who work in the civil service or in a health trust can take six months off, while the mummy in the local shop, who we see in our office every day, is back to work after six weeks through necessity.

Last night, a lady at home was talking about what would happen if her mortgage changes. She already faces pressures on childcare, and has to take time off from her business for it, which means her income is reduced. There are so many equations in this issue, and we really do need fairness. I support the calls of colleagues in this place for change to be a priority for Government. In the paper last week there was a suggestion of tax relief for those with larger mortgages. Although that may not directly be an issue for the Minister today, if we are going to do something practical, honest and physically helpful for people, let us do that. We should have tax relief for the extra mortgage costs that may come through. If we do that, we will take the pressure off and ensure that people can retain the homes that they have already invested so much in and, at the same time, have their family.

I want to support families. The Government are clear that family is a priority. The Minister has said that before in debates in this House, and I know that others have said it. If that is true, and not simply words, we need to do better. Maternity pay is one such way of doing better by our families, along with childcare help and an increase to the child benefit threshold. We can and must make immediate changes. I look to the Minister to make those necessary steps.

I am very pleased to be part of the debate, and to represent my constituents who asked me to raise these issues. When I noticed that the debate had been scheduled, about a fortnight ago, I had already committed myself to coming here and making the case. We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for setting the scene, and I look forward to what my friend, the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) will say. I know that we are all saying the same thing, and singing from the same hymn sheet. We all look to the Minister for a positive response.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. I join the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate. I also welcome Ms Sheridan to the Gallery and thank her for creating the petition.

To pick up where the hon. Member for Strangford left off, I have a great deal of sympathy for the proposal that we introduce some sort of salary sacrifice scheme for mortgages. The reality is that 2.6 million fixed rate mortgages are due to expire before the end of the year. Unfortunately, my fixed rate mortgage expired in October, so my mortgage has doubled in the course of the last year. As a Member of Parliament, I can obviously absorb that cost to a certain extent, but as the hon. Member for Strangford outlined, for far too many families that will simply not be the case. It is perhaps no surprise that mothers are, for example, facing the indignity of having to ask for formula to be taken from behind the counter because there is a fear that it could be shoplifted.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North was spot on about the cost of living crisis. It has certainly been my party’s No. 1 priority; we have been doing everything in our power to support our constituents throughout this incredibly difficult time. It is because I have seen the impact of the crisis on my constituents day in and day out that I wanted to take part in today’s debate. I have seen the frankly devastating consequences of my constituents being unable to afford their weekly food shop and struggling to pay their energy bills. That is an irony that is not lost on people who live on an island that is energy-rich.

While the pervasive crisis is clearly impacting everyone, the parents of young families are perhaps feeling the belt tightening the most. I caution colleagues that it is not necessarily a new issue; the Government in Westminster sadly have a long and torrid history of penalising young and single-parent households in particular. The SNP has consistently urged the British Government to improve parental leave and pay. Upon arriving here in 2017, I spent my first few years using just about every parliamentary mechanism possible to push the Government to introduce legislation that would give additional leave and pay to parents such as myself who had premature or sick babies, in addition to the maternity and paternity leave and pay that they are entitled to.

Whenever I leave this place, the proudest moment of my time as an MP will still be when my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) chose to take on that cause for his private Member’s Bill, which I am pleased received Royal Assent last month. In short, it means that parents of premature and sick babies, as we were with Isaac and Jessica, will never again have to go through that terrible time. I pay tribute to all who joined that long and hard-fought campaign. The legislation will change the lives of thousands of families and will undoubtedly make life that little bit easier for parents who are already experiencing a difficult time.

We have come so far, but we have so much further to go. Another colleague and friend of mine, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), has campaigned tirelessly for paid leave for anyone who has suffered a miscarriage. Alongside those campaigns, my party has continually—as have others, to be fair—called on the British Government to improve parental leave and pay generally. That issue is more important than ever, not just in the face of the ongoing cost of living crisis but in recognition that the world of work is changing.

Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, it is concerning that among OECD countries the UK has the second-lowest payment rates for maternity leave. Less than one third of gross average earnings are replaced by maternity leave and despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave lasts for only 12 weeks.

As a Scottish National party MP, I obviously disagree with the fact that employment law is reserved to lawmakers here in Westminster. Similarly, I remain bemused, as does the Scottish Trades Union Congress, that the Labour party refuses to support the devolution of employment law. But while such powers still rest here, I must urge the British Government to increase maternity and paternity pay, to review the eligibility for maternity allowance and to give partners an additional 12 weeks’ paid leave on a non- transferable “use it or lose it” basis within shared parental leave.

It is truly appalling that many workers still do not qualify for statutory maternity leave and pay, including those on insecure contracts, such as zero-hours workers. That is why the Conservative Government must act urgently to rectify this injustice by legislating to expand eligibility for statutory maternity leave and pay. However, the reality is that the British social security system is unjust and penalises parents, particularly young families. I am fed up doing so, but I again ask the Government to bring forward the long-awaited employment Bill that could deal with some of these issues.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North outlined on its behalf, the Petitions Committee has highlighted before that there is a real disparity in the treatment of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay, particularly when it comes to universal credit, which further penalises self-employed mothers and those on low incomes. Under the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, and certainly in contrast to statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance is treated as unearned income by the Department for Work and Pensions, and is deducted in full from UC awards. For any of us who operate within the sphere of the DWP, it is clear that maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay should be equalised. I invite the Minister to address that point in her response to the debate.

In addition, the Government must end the young parent penalty in universal credit that denies single parents under the age of 25 the same level of social security as those above that age, pushing those impacted into poverty. I pay tribute to One Parent Families Scotland, which campaigns relentlessly against the young parent penalty.

It has also been a staple element of my party’s policy to oppose the two-child limit and its associated rape clause, or—to use the Sunday name that the UK Government prefer—the non-consensual sex exemption. This policy has been on the statute book for far too long. I suspect that the Minister will stand up and talk about the importance of families, but it is rather difficult for her to do so when there is a Government policy that has a state cap on the number of children that the Government will support and, more despicably, a rape clause attached.

These individual policies are all part of a larger picture of a social security system that penalises the very poorest and the most vulnerable. You are a committed Member of the Work and Pensions Committee, Mr McCabe, like myself, so I know that you too see this situation every Wednesday morning when the Committee takes evidence—overwhelming evidence that we need to provide greater support. The evidence that we see is the likes of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows that families with younger children, and particularly lone-parent families, are predominantly headed by women and face a disproportionate risk of poverty.

It is clear that under the Tories, the current social security system is inadequate and is now at the stage where frankly it is falling apart at a time when people need it most. The SNP has long called for the British Government to fix these fundamental flaws. However, the sheer reality is that with 85% of welfare expenditure and income-replacement benefits reserved to this place, our hands in Scotland are tied. Yes, the SNP Government in Holyrood can do what they can, whether that is with the baby box, the best start grant or the limited devolved benefits and powers that we have, but the reality is that the vast majority of welfare decision making remains in the hands of a Tory Government we did not vote for; indeed, we have not voted for a Tory Government since 1955.

I will name just a few policies in Scotland: the fair work first policy promotes fairer work practices across the labour market; the baby box ensures that every child begins life with the essential items it needs; the Scottish child payment, which by the way is not confined to just two children, is now £25 per week and has been described as game-changing by charities; and free childcare is provided to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds, saving eligible families £5,000 per child per year. I declare an interest as somebody who is a recipient of that.

The SNP is committed to social security being an investment in people, and it is part of the Scottish Government’s national mission to tackle child poverty, levels of which are still far too high. In April, all Scottish benefits were uprated in line with inflation, by 10.1%, at a cost of around £430 million. In addition to that, £5.2 billion was invested in benefits expenditure in Budget 2023-24, supporting over 1 million people.

I could go on listing the policies that the Scottish Government have put in place to support low-income families and to tackle child poverty, from the £50 million commitment to the tackling child poverty fund—providing £69.7 million for employability support for parents through the no one left behind approach—to providing £50 million for the whole family wellbeing programme and a further £30 million for the keep the promise plan for care-experienced children and young people. But the reality is that we are doing all this from our devolved budget while trying to mitigate poor welfare decisions, such as the bedroom tax, which is mitigated entirely in Scotland through discretionary housing payments. However, I would always remind people back home that what we spend on nullifying the bedroom tax is money that we cannot spend on health or education, for example. That is just the stark reality.

My party is committed to alleviating poverty and ensuring that people live in a fair and just society. On the other hand, the Conservatives here in London are intent on deepening inequalities and on cementing poverty and hardship across communities in Scotland, where they have no democratic mandate. Yes, we can enact all the policies I mentioned just a moment ago with one hand tied behind our back, but every additional pound that we spend on measures to help with rising costs must be funded from reductions elsewhere, given our largely fixed budget and limited fiscal powers. The Scottish Government are using those limited powers and resources to do everything they can, but this must be matched by the Government here in London. With every day that the UK Government fail to use their reserved powers to adequately tackle the rising cost of living, they are demonstrating that independence is the only way for Scotland to boost incomes and build a fairer society—and having social justice at its heart is so important.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr McCabe, and I thank everyone who has spoken in today’s debate. Despite the attendance, this is a matter of great importance to millions of people up and down the country. I am sorry to Nicola, the organiser of the petition, that more Members were not here to speak. I am sure we are all aware that other business is catching people’s attention today, but I hope that those who have heard the debate will see that there is a lot of interest and well-informed opinion about the challenges that new parents face.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her introduction to the debate, which gave a comprehensive overview of the challenges that new parents face. She mentioned—I will discuss this in a little while—the huge costs that new parents face, which have increased in recent times. There is a chasm between those costs and the rates of statutory maternity pay, which have also been discussed. She gave us a whole range of facts and figures to demonstrate that, and the personal testimonies from mothers she has spoken to illustrate the real difficulties that many people are facing. She mentioned the Government line that maternity pay is in line with other out-of-work benefits, which shows how completely out of touch they are and demonstrates the lack of understanding about the huge workload that any new parent will face.

My hon. Friend rightly identified loopholes in relation to self-employment for adopted parents. Obviously that needs to be addressed, because we know that formally adopting a child is a huge financial commitment, and those financial barriers need to be removed. Her wide-ranging speech touched on childcare costs, the impact that maternity leave can have on a woman’s pay for the rest of her life—something that still exists, 50-odd years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced—and maternal mental health, which is grossly overlooked at times. Her conclusion that having a child is a calculation made on a spreadsheet really hit home. All parents look at that when planning a family, but when we look at the costs households face—huge increases in housing cost, student loan payments, an increased tax burden, pension contributions and childcare costs—we can see how, for many, the sums do not add up, and that brings home what a challenge this is.

It was a pleasure, as always, to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without a contribution from him. Like him, I have three boys. I wonder how similar they are—it would be interesting to compare notes at some point. He made some valuable points about the cost of raising a family, with the cost of the first year being £6,000. It probably feels like more for many because babies grow out of their clothes so quickly and there are all the set-up costs.

We are fortunate in my part of the world that the charity KidsBank, which is based in Chester but operates in Ellesmere Port and Neston, provides new parents with a lot of those essentials. They are all recycled and donated goods, but it is a critical thing for those families who are on the breadline and who need that support. It shows how difficult it is to raise a family.

The hon. Member makes the powerful point that more often than not it falls to the third sector to step in and support people. Does he agree that it is not a sign of the big society that these groups, however great the work they are doing is, fulfil that need, but a sign of a broken welfare state that is fundamentally beyond repair?

I hope our welfare state is not beyond repair. I sincerely hope that we are able to build back the blocks of society that have been dismantled over the past 13 years, but wherever we turn in society now, we see the third sector stepping in because the state has not been able to meet the demand, and that is a signal that something has gone fundamentally wrong in this country.

Let me return to the contribution of the hon. Member for Strangford, who mentioned mortgage costs. As other Members have mentioned, that will become a huge issue over the next 12 months. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, it is a live issue, and the Government are still grappling with the implications. The hon. Member for Strangford raised the example of Scandinavian countries. Of course, they are always held up as the most progressive examples of welfare support and progressive societies, and I am sure there is something to learn from them.

It is important that we do not see the debate as something that has only happened recently because of the cost of living crisis. Many of the extra pressures are ones that new parents have faced since time began, but they are particularly acute at the moment. In that context, it is important to look at the issue raised in the petition, which is the level of statutory maternity pay. As we know, inflation has skyrocketed in the past two years. Although this year’s increase in statutory maternity pay more accurately reflects the economic situation, last year there was an increase in statutory maternity pay of only 3.1% when inflation was running at about 9%. The figures do not capture the full picture, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned. Inflationary increases in the essentials for parents have been particularly acute. She traded some figures about the costs, and I have a few of my own. We can pick whichever ones we want, but they go far beyond the headline rate of inflation for new parents.

The Mirror showed an increase in costs of 38% in a year. The Guardian found that the cheapest baby formula had gone up by 22% in a year. First Steps Nutrition Trust showed that the cheapest brands had gone up by 45% in the past two years and other brands had gone up between 17% and 31%. There is a range of percentages that shows how the issue goes way beyond the headline rate of inflation, which statutory maternity pay is based on.

As the recent Sky News report highlighted, theft of formula milk is becoming more prevalent. Is there anything that symbolises more the current crisis in our country than images of formula baby milk stacked on supermarket shelves with security tags around them? That sends a very clear message about what kind of country we are and the crisis we face. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we know how important it is for children to have a healthy start in life and how their formative years can shape the ones that follow. I worry that the fallout from the issues we are talking about now will be with us for many years to come.

On a more positive note, I pay tribute to all the charities and volunteers who do their bit to ensure that everyone has access to food and support when they need it. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East said, that is not something we should accept as the norm. That should not be substituted as a safety net for the state, but, sadly, that is where we are. In my constituency we have great groups that help out, such as West Cheshire food bank, the Whitby Community Cupboard and the People’s Pantry at Stanney Grange, which I recall visiting recently and being told how much demand there was for formula milk and help and how important it was to get donations, which shows how out of reach all that is for many people.

Of course, the issue is not just about formula milk; it is about the general increase in essentials. Food inflation is just under 20% at the moment. Gas and electricity inflation has reached 129% and 67% at various points in the year, and, as we have already discussed, mortgage rates are shooting up for many people, resulting in instant requests for hundreds of pounds extra a month that people simply do not have.

Looking at inflation in a year in isolation does not tell us the full story. If we go back to 2012, the basic rate of statutory maternity pay equated to 62.5% of a 35-hour week on the national minimum wage, but today it equates to 47.3% of a 35-hour week on the same rate of pay. We are towards the bottom of the league table of decent maternity pay in Europe. Women receive only around 25% of average earnings. As the hon. Member for Strangford suggested, countries such as those in Scandinavia do far better on those metrics.

Research conducted by Maternity Action shows that most women have concerns about money, with the number who are worried increasing at an alarming rate as the cost of living crisis bites in very real terms. In 2022, 64% of women who responded to the survey reported being worried about money when pregnant or on maternity leave. That increased to 71% this year. Widespread concerns about money are all-encompassing. Only 2% of those surveyed claimed that they did not worry about money at all. Some 73% of women told Maternity Action that they struggled to buy the things they needed while pregnant or on maternity leave, of whom 18% reported struggling “a lot”. That has practical consequences.

Some 76% of women surveyed reported that they reduced the number of hours their heating was on; 70% turned down their thermostat; and 55% stopped heating whole rooms altogether. As we know, those choices are made reluctantly and have significant consequences, particularly for newborns, who can pick up infections as a result of the cold, damp and mould. Equally, some parents have reported that they have reduced the amount that they spent on food. Half did that by buying less healthy food, more than one third reduced portions or skipped meals, and one quarter prioritised giving food to their children over themselves.

Just listening to the testimony collected shows the stark reality and human cost of this situation. One respondent talked about the impact of cutting back on heating and said:

“We did use the heating less at first but my…baby ended up with pneumonia and a lower left lung infection…so now we have reduced the thermostat instead.”

Another stated:

“I have had days when the only thing I have eaten is the kids’ leftovers. Some days my only meal is toast.”

We know how hard it is to be a parent at the best of times, but being forced to make those kinds of decision can only add to the burden.

Financial insecurity is one huge aspect of motherhood, but job insecurity is another. Research has consistently found massive discrimination at work due to pregnancy. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimated in 2015 that

“around 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs”

in some way due to their pregnancies. Pregnant Then Screwed made similar findings in 2020, which were actually based on a larger sample. In between those surveys, the Taylor review also reported that at least one in 10 employers—perhaps as many as one in five—were not willing to support pregnant women and new mothers, and that one third believed that women should have to disclose family plans at an interview and be at the company for at least a year before being able to have children. Such views really belong in the dark ages.

What has the Government’s response been to those shocking revelations? Despite their being a manifesto commitment and being in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, we have seen no expanded protections for pregnant workers and new mothers until this parliamentary Session. Three times in the previous three Sessions, private Members’ Bills were left to flounder, with none receiving a Second Reading. However, thanks to the tireless campaigning and work by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), such legislation has finally received Royal Assent.

It is clear that the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023 has the potential to better protect pregnant workers and new mothers, although the Act only gives enabling powers to the Secretary of State to pass new regulations; it does not, of itself, introduce new protections. Although the Act received Royal Assent only recently, we see no sign of those regulations. I know that that is not within the Minister’s brief, but could she update us on when those regulations can be expected? If she also told us by how long the protected period will be increased, or at least who will be consulted before such judgments are made, that would be warmly received. Given that the Act gave no indication of the length of the protected period or the requirements there would be for consultations before regulations were issued, there is a concern that we might end up, at the end of the day, with a bit of a damp squib.

Of course, extending a period of protection is only as good as the protection in the first place, and, as we have heard, tens of thousands of women face discrimination under the existing law. A single enforcement body might help to address that. Again, that was being promised in that same Queen’s Speech, but since the employment Bill has not surfaced, it seems that we have little hope of seeing that body in place before the next general election.

I turn briefly to the issue of shared parental leave, which a couple of Members have mentioned. It is clear that it is not working and it needs to be urgently reviewed. The Women’s Budget Group, an independent organisation that monitors the effect of Government policies on men and women, has called the scheme “complicated” and said that, because leave was shared, the onus on taking parental leave still often fell on the women—men tended to earn more, so they would be less likely to want to sacrifice that salary as part of the arrangement. Ros Bragg, the director of Maternity Action, said:

“Shared parental leave was brought in seven years ago now and it’s clear that it’s not working—take up is woeful. Our advice lines are full of parents who want to share parental leave, but confusion around the rules means that they are completely baffled. Add that to the low level of pay on offer, and the system seems almost designed to put parents off sharing leave, rather than encourage it.”

The common view is that the shared parental leave system is too complicated. It is poorly understood by employers and parents; there are low rates of pay; and the fact that not all workers qualify, including agency workers, those on zero-hours contracts and the self-employed, means that it needs urgent review. A Government consultation on high-level options for reforming family-related leave and pay, including a right to neonatal leave and pay for parents with premature or sick babies, and proposals to encourage transparency on flexible working and parental leave policies, was launched in July 2019, but the Government have still not published their full response to the consultation. They have addressed some of the proposals, but not all; we are still waiting for the rest.

It seems, as always, that a Labour Government will be needed to come in and address these issues. We will eliminate the restrictive time limits attached to statutory maternity pay, making it a day one right. That will allow women to take control of their family planning. No longer will they be forced to plan one of the most important life decisions around the needs of their employer. We will also extend statutory maternity and paternity leave, as well as urgently review the failed parental leave system. Buttressing those reforms—as well as many others in the new deal for workers, which I encourage hon. Members to review—will be a single enforcement body, which will possess extensive powers enabling it to stand up for workers.

We understand that reforms to employment rights and protections require a multifaceted approach—one that really cannot work through the piecemeal approach we have seen from the Government. After more than a decade in government, the Conservatives are holding back women at work, meaning that a Labour Government, as the last Labour Government did, will stand up for women and bring true equality into the workplace and beyond.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank hon. Members for joining us this afternoon. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate so thoughtfully.

As we have heard, being a parent is an incredibly important and rewarding job. It is one that comes with a unique set of challenges, from recovering from birth with a newborn to balancing employment and care and, in my own life, being a sandwich carer, so I absolutely understand the challenges. While I have the floor, I pay tribute to local firefighters who were battling a fire in Burgess Hill in my constituency just this afternoon, with members of the public being sent home and asked to be vigilant after another one yesterday in Sharpthorne. If you will indulge me, Mr McCabe, I thank them very much.

An 18-year-old will be coming into my house very shortly, and another teen. As a single mum and a woman returner, I really do get it, and I hope that some of my remarks will reflect that. I will be clear that I cannot answer all the issues, because they are not all in my remit, but I will undertake to write and share what I can and bring other Departments to account.

Last week was Loneliness Awareness Week. As parents, I think we have all felt incredibly lonely and isolated. Being a single parent can be overwhelming and incredibly difficult. It can be hard work; the pressures are not new, but they are definitely challenging right now. Overall, it is a wondrous, joyous slog—let us all be honest about that. Just after fathers’ day, we reflect that the boost for gender equality and equal parent support is vital. I thank Nicola for being here today, and all the groups and charities that support parents through this precious and—as we all recall, if ours are a little older—challenging time.

Speaking of baby boxes, on a slightly different point, I remember that my mum and dad gave me a war chest. They had been struggling with long-term illness and not having a huge amount of money, but it was a labour of love and of many trips to Poundland, and it really made a difference. We know that everything makes a difference at the start, when the parent is feeling the pressure and has had a big change in their life, particularly if the child is their first. Of course, added to that are high inflation, the cost of living challenges and global pressures, which make it very difficult to look after that precious little bundle. That is why it is important that in April we increased the rate of all statutory parental payments by 10.1%, in line with CPI, and we will continue to take decisive action to help households. I will outline some more of what we are doing shortly.

It is our firm belief that the best way to help people improve their financial circumstances throughout their life is through work, but, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, only when the time is right. It is important that people are given a choice, so I strongly agree with the points she made. We need to be ambitious in enabling parents to progress in work; it must not be only people without children who can do that, so we need to get things right. We need to support children by enabling their parents to be there when they want. That is equally valuable, and the flexible parental leave entitlements for new parents support just that.

I recognise that this is a complicated area, as hon. Members have said—I have taken their points on board. It is also vital that adopters get a better deal and more assistance. My wider family has experience of that, and it is really important too.

Parents must have access to the range of support and entitlements they need for their child’s first year. We are giving working families more choice and flexibility about who cares for their child when the parents are at work. Our statutory maternity leave entitlement is rightly generous, but hon. Members have said it is not generous enough—if only I had a magic wand. We offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid through statutory maternity pay. For self-employed women, who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay—I was one, so I very much understand the insecurity—maternity allowance is available. Both payments are designed to enable women to stop working towards the end of their pregnancy and in the precious months after childbirth. That is in their and their baby’s best interest; it supports their health, wellbeing and, above all, bonding.

I fully recognise the role that fathers can and must play in that crucial time, their child’s first year. We have a real opportunity to boost gender equality and support parents; I will say more about that later. Statutory paternity leave and pay arrangements enable employed fathers and partners who meet the qualifying conditions to take up to two weeks of paid leave within the first eight weeks following the birth of their child or placement for adoption. Qualifying parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly said that shared parental leave gives mothers who wish to return to work the opportunity to do so, and rightly enables the father or partner to be the primary carer if they wish.

We want more men to confidently take the helm. Employers can really help with that by understanding that dads want and need to be there at key moments, not just the nativity or the parents evening. In fact, I am the guilty party who is never there for the parents evening, so it is flipped around in my world these days. If men can confidently be there, perhaps, as Opposition Members said, we can boost the take-up of the scheme, which started in 2015. We forecasted that between 2% and 8% of eligible couples would take part, and the actual take-up is broadly in line with that. It is increasing each year, but not fast enough. That is the challenge for us all: how we make the scheme something that people really feel they can take part in. In order to do that, the shared parental leave online tool is accessible for parents to check their eligibility and plan their leave together. We are currently evaluating the shared parental leave scheme and will publish our findings in due course.

There has been a clear message today on rates. The rate of all statutory parental payments is reviewed annually and, as mentioned, generally increases in line with the CPI. The Government will spend around £276 billion in 2023-24 on welfare support in Great Britain. I will come to further support for those who may be listening this afternoon who perhaps have not reached out for additional help. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about the slightly indelicate link between out of work benefits and the support that we give to parents. I note her comments on that, and pretty much agree with her. I will take that away in terms of how we talk about supporting people who are out of work, and how we support pregnant working women when they are in the special position—let us be honest—of coming to the point when they want to do what is right for them next, and new mothers.

The Government spend approximately £3 billion on maternity payments. There is a balance to strike both in language and in any changes to the rate of SMP, taking account of economic circumstances and affordability for taxpayers. We also need to speak to stakeholders, some of whom have been mentioned, and businesses. It needs to be a holistic effort. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) gave a list of future plans that he may have, but in reality we want to ensure that we hear the asks both of the petitioners who have challenged us this afternoon and of the sectors and businesses, to ensure that we take people on any change journey. We have talked about planning, saving and spreadsheets where needed. I was—briefly, it feels like—married to an accountant, so I felt as if I was living in a world of spreadsheets. It is what we all have to do, and it is a challenge, particularly when we do not know what we do not know when it comes to parenting, and the impact that it will have on our back pocket.

I think employers can do more. The work of the civil service was mentioned. We have a very tight labour market. Consider a talented, skilled, brilliant woman who is adopting or becoming a mum in whatever way, whether for the first time or growing her family. Employers really need to think forward about job design and making it work for such women to return. I mentioned that I am a single mum; when I came to this place, I was a woman returner. Many of us are, and many mums, for various reasons, have been locked out of the labour market for far too long. They have incredible ability and talent. Employers have a chance to look at job design. In my constituency, Boeing has created a deliberate part-time role—not a role where a person squeezes full time into part time, but an actual role where they add value in a way that works for their circumstances. If we have more people in the labour market doing more, everyone will do better, so let us all challenge ourselves on that.

I have been given an extremely long speech, so I will try not to repeat things that many people will know, and will try to answer some of the questions. Hopefully I have covered the way in which things are calculated and equal access for adoptive parents. I agree with the point on the Healthy Start scheme needing a boost with regard to take-up. I will take that away to work on with colleagues. I think the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made a fair point on outcomes and monitoring, and I note that.

My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), talked about tax relief, which was reiterated by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). I am not in the Treasury, and I am delighted about that every day; until I get the call-up, I will pass on that headache for as long as possible. I say that very gently—did I actually say that out loud? My point is that it is a matter for the Treasury. I am sure it is listening and I will leave it to get on with it.

Regarding the Scotland Act 1998, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Glasgow East is using those powers. I note his point about under-25s; that is not my policy area, but he knows that I have a strong interest in youth policy and single parents. I undertake to understand his point and take it away.

For those listening to this debate who have a concern about mortgages, I said on the Floor of the House this afternoon, and I reiterate here, that if people are worried they should engage with their mortgage lender. There is support for mortgage interest out there. We have abolished the zero-earnings rule to allow claimants on universal credit to receive support while in work and on UC—support is now available after three months. People should engage with their lenders. We paid £25 million to 12,000 households in 2021-22 and we will continue to extend that support for mortgage interest rates. People should use the benefits calculator on if they are concerned; there is help for households on that site and links to the household support fund, which I will come on to shortly.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East raised a concern about miscarriage leave. Miscarriages are a deeply challenging, personal and devasting experience for many women, as well as their partners and families. In this place we have got better at talking about such things, but it is still too unspoken and difficult in the workplace, which is something a friend of mine recently spoke to me about. The Government believe that individuals are best placed to know their own specific needs, and that good employers will rightly respond in a sensitive way to requests made by employees.

I do not intend to make this issue a party political point. Knowing the Minister very well, I think there is a genuine willingness to try and fix the issue. It is not something that should be hard. I caution the Government, however, that simply hoping that employers do the right thing is not something that we can rely on in this place. The Minister is right that the vast majority of employers would agree if an employee went to them and said, “I have had a miscarriage. Can I have some time off?” The reason that we legislate in this place is to ensure that the few are looked after. It is for that reason that it is important the Government look again and do not just leave it to the market. They should step in and do what the state does best.

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. It is not an area that I am in charge of, but I am sure that those who are will be listening. Of course, if a woman unfortunately has a miscarriage, there are protections that extend to two weeks after the end of that pregnancy. That is a protection under the Equality Act 2010. I understand, however, the hon. Gentleman’s point about what happens before 24 weeks. This is a difficult one, which is why Nicola and the other petitioners, by bringing the petition to the House and making us focus on all of the issues, did the right thing. I have nearly got myself in enough trouble this afternoon, without creating any more policy in this Chamber, so I will refrain from saying more on that one.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point on the two child policy. We disagree on that point in terms of families on benefits facing the same financial challenges and choices when it comes to growing their family as those who are supported solely through work. It is important that child benefit continues to be paid for all children in eligible families, but it is right that we continue with that policy where appropriate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned those particular exemptions. Again, I note that it is a challenging area.

Opposition Members raised the issue of support for childcare. It is important to provide the right support for parents who are balancing childcare and returning to work. The Government have already put in more than £20 billion in the last five years to support families with the cost of childcare, and thousands of parents have benefited from that support. However, more changes are coming. We announced in the Budget that by 2027-28 we will provide £4.1 billion to expand the current free childcare offer to eligible working parents of children aged between nine and 36 months. I recognise that Government-funded childcare, which is free to the recipient, needs design. That was mentioned to a degree in the Chamber this afternoon. We are expecting to spend more than £8 billion a year on that funding and early education, which represents the biggest ever single investment in childcare in England.

I will quickly cover neonatal pay and pregnancy discrimination and then try to conclude, because I am mindful that I have spoken for some time. We are aware that more needs to be done to support parents whose children are in neonatal care. Many of us in the House know people personally who have been impacted by this issue. Again, the House has come into its own by talking about it and its impact on families.

In March 2020, following a Government consultation, we committed to introducing a new entitlement to neonatal leave and pay. The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023 will introduce an entitlement of up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents whose child is admitted to neonatal care. The entitlement will support new parents during the most stressful days of their lives, ensuring that they can be there for their youngster. The Act received Royal Assent on 24 May this year, and we anticipate that the entitlement will become available to parents in April 2025. I hope that that helps hon. Members.

The Act was originally my Bill, so I am familiar with it. There is a slight issue with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs dragging its heels. Notwithstanding what the Minister said about not being a Treasury Minister, will she at least write to HMRC following today’s debate, outlining that there is cross-party agreement? Indeed, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) has been excellent on this issue. There is cross-party agreement that £50 million has been committed in the budget line, but there is no need for us to wait that long because of the lag in HMRC guidance.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I know it was a deeply personal Bill for him and he will be strident on this issue. I will take away that ask as he wishes.

I turn to pregnancy and maternity discrimination protections. Ensuring that parents have the leave and flexibility that they need during this period is important, as is ensuring that they are protected against discrimination and do not suffer any detriment for taking that leave. That is why we are rightly extending pregnancy and maternity discrimination protection for those returning from periods of eligible parental leave. The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023 will enable redundancy protections to apply from the point at which an employee told their employer that they were pregnant, until six months after returning from maternity, adoption or shared parental leave. The provision will protect individuals from redundancy and help mothers to remain, rightly, in the workforce.

Support needs to go way beyond the first year of a child’s life, so it is important that there are further entitlements for others. Time off for dependants is important as well, and I will update the House further on that.

It is important for me to cover flexible working. We are fully committed to ensuring that parents get the support that is right for them. The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill received its Second Reading in the other place on 19 May. That Bill will increase the number of requests that an employee can make in a 12-month period, reduce the time allowed to administer requests, and support more effective conversations about what flexible working arrangements may work to the benefit of both employer and employee. Alongside the Bill, the Government will introduce regulations, as mentioned, to make the right to request flexible working apply from the first day of employment, bringing an estimated additional 2.2 million employees into the scope of the legislation. My understanding is that as soon as parliamentary time allows, this will be moving forward.

I mentioned cost of living support. Statutory parental pay is only one aspect of Help for Households. There is support worth £94 billion across 2022-23 and 2023-24 to help people with rising bills; the support is worth £3,300 per UK household on average. Included in that are cost of living payments to more than 8 million low-income households, about 6 million disabled people and more than 8 million pensioner households. I would say to anybody, “Please look at the benefits calculator. Please look at Help for Households. Please reach out to your local council or your devolved Administration, because there is extra support out there.”

I will close by reiterating the Government’s commitment to supporting parents as we continue to face high inflation. We understand the added, varied and complex pressures that we have heard about and discussed this afternoon, which parents are experiencing alongside the cost of living and inflation challenges. That is why we have done the right thing with the uprating, in line with CPI, of statutory parental payments—alongside other payments—by 10.1%. We will continue to take decisive action to help all households.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for opening this petition debate. I will continue to support women—as long as I have breath, and a seat in this House—in any role that I have. It is great that we all come together on something that is so important. On some areas there will of course be disagreements, but as long as we continue to work together to support parents, at this most difficult time, in any part of our community—I am seeing some of my great local charities, the local food bank and other supporters on Monday; there is additional support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by the way, for local charities—we will really make the difference and ensure that no parent, whatever their situation, and no family ever feel alone.

I thank the Minister for that response, which covered in quite some detail many of the issues that have been raised. I also thank the hon. Members who made contributions today: the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); the SNP shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden); and the Labour shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).

The Government’s response on broader help for households during this cost of living crisis is clearly welcome, but I worry that speaking in such general terms somewhat neglects the very specific challenges that parents are facing at the moment. I could go back to all the statistics that we have looked at on the impact of the cost of living on parents, and on the challenges around the Government support. The Minister mentioned the headline figures, but the reality for parents that we are hearing—their experience of how anxious they are and how much they are struggling—does not match up to the big numbers that the Government cite.

I want to focus my closing remarks on those mothers and fathers whose struggles have made this debate necessary today. Society’s duty is to look after our next generation—to protect and nourish them. Parliamentarians and Government in particular have a huge role to play in support of families to do just that. Mothers are crippled by stress, with rocketing prices and the isolation that people experience in society today. The way it is formed means that support is just not available to deal with such a level of crisis as in this acute period.

We have had a lot of talk about parental leave, pushing on paternity leave, but clearly that comes down to money. An awful lot of families cannot afford for the dad as well as the mum to take parental leave; the Minister spoke powerfully about that, and I hope that we see the Government take steps. There is also the absence of Sure Start centres in many localities, which used to provide some of that support for mothers who feel very isolated. We are finally seeing the rebirth, to some extent, of Sure Start through the family hubs, which are very welcome, but there has been that gap, and there is still a real gap.

Many mothers carry the burden on their own. That has been the case for some time, but they are now carrying it with the crushing anxiety of rising prices—I do not know about everyone else, but every time I go to the shops I am shocked by how much the products I buy every week have gone up. Given that isolation, we are seeing worsening maternal mental health: the statistics show that that is with us already. With the economic disenfranchisement and the deeply entrenched inequality, the impact on children of the deepening maternal mental health challenge is already evident.

One of the mums who spoke to me referred to the soaring costs as “always in my head”—constantly, every day, having to work out what to make for dinner and what she can buy from the shops. She says that it is never out of her head. She can already see the impact on her child, who knows now not to ask for anything until payday. That period when nothing can be bought is getting longer, not shorter, every month. Things are getting harder for families, not easier.

From my preparation for the debate, what has been hard is that for many families raising a child is no longer a source of joy and hope; it is a source of stress and anxiety. We cannot sustain that as a society. The call for statutory parental pay is just another addition to the clamour of calls for change, on top of our discussions about the costs of childcare and housing and, before that, about the food bank crisis, which has now become normalised. We are going from a bad situation to a worse one, and we need to turn that around.

I am encouraged by the Minister’s response, and I do not doubt her personal commitment to the issues, but I hope that the Government have listened today to what parents have said. My final word goes to our petition’s creator, Nicola Sheridan, who amid all her preparations during pregnancy for childbirth did the heroic thing of starting a petition to bring the issue to the House to be discussed and debated so that the voices of those struggling parents are heard. I hope she does not mind me saying this, but she did that because she knows that she is the fortunate one and that many are not in as fortunate a position as she is. She has done a truly heroic thing by bringing the issue before Parliament.

The Minister has been restricted in what she can say in response to the debate, but I hope she will take it away and give it to the various Departments that can truly make a difference to the many aspects of our concerns, and that we will see change and see that support for families. The future of our children being born today is too important to leave to chance.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 617155, relating to the cost of living and parental leave and pay.

Sitting adjourned.