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Covid-19: Working Mothers

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the TUC Working mums: Paying the price, published on 14 January.

The Government are sympathetic to the challenges working parents have faced during the pandemic and note the content of this excellent TUC report. The coronavirus job retention scheme was introduced to ensure that firms could keep millions of people in employment. Whether to use the CJRS remains a business decision for employers to take in consultation with their employees. It is not for the Government to decide whether an individual firm should furlough its staff.

It is right that we should celebrate International Women’s Day today and celebrate women’s achievements, although some might think we have gone back to the 1950s. Low pay, job insecurity and an unequal society predate the pandemic but are exacerbated by it. Seven out of 10 women being rejected for furlough is one example. The TUC report received 50,000 responses, covering mental health, fear of being selected for redundancy and paid leave for carers. The Government should be producing a gender impact assessment on all their policies but rarely do so. How will the Minister make sure that this happens in future?

The noble Baroness is right to point out a number of very shocking statistics in the TUC report. We continue to actively monitor the impact of Covid-19 on the labour market, particularly on women. All departments ensure that equality considerations are at the heart of their decision-making. This is key to the Government’s commitment to delivering equality of opportunity for all as well as to complying with legal requirements under the public sector equality duty. The Government Equality Office, based in the Cabinet Office, runs a number of targeted programmes for women to support returners to work and others with protected characteristics, including minority groups.

Does the Minister agree there is an urgent need for legislation to create a comprehensive scheme for working parents which, in addition to properly paid maternity and paternity leave, provides for shared paid leave and flexible work arrangements in relation to childcare, care for family members and family emergencies, requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for non-disabling, non-permanent conditions, such as menopause, and gives adequate protection against dismissal or detriment for seeking to enjoy these rights?

The noble Lord makes some interesting points. The shared parental leave and pay scheme already gives working families choice and flexibility on who cares for their children, at least in the first year. Following consultation, we are evaluating the views from over 3,000 parents, and our analysis will be published. There are protections against detriment, and parents on shared parental leave are protected against unfair dismissal. I note his comments about requiring legislation, and this will be part of the considerations in the consultation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that unless findings are presented so the general public can look at them, you are not going to get the best out of them regarding pressure brought to bear so that they are fitted into any new legislation? Can the Minister give us any reassurance that whatever is found out when we look back at this experience will be brought forward in a way the public can access easily?

The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the sorts of lesson we ought to be able to focus on in this report, which had such an enormous response. It is personally frustrating that we do not seem to have moved far from the conclusion reached by the Women in Work Commission in 2004. Both reports call for greater flexibility in working practices, so the 2019 manifesto to encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default, unless employers have good reason not to do so, should be welcome. This adds to the rights of employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service, who can already ask for flexible working, which is one of the keys to encouraging women in the workplace.

My Lords, on this International Woman’s Day, there were an awful lot of exhausted-looking mums on my first school run back this morning—there were some dads, but it was mainly mums. We need to tackle the structural as well as the cultural barriers that mean that men are less likely to take parental leave or request flexible working. The Government are working with a range of employers; the Minister has spoken about employer-led initiatives, including the Build Back Better Council to drive economic recovery for all. Can my noble friend say how this will include helping working families to achieve a better balance?

My noble friend is right; having already mentioned the call in the manifesto for greater flexibility in working practices, the Build Back Better Council is bringing together a broad range of business leaders who will work with the Government to boost job creation generally. Investing in skills is the single most effective way of driving productivity. Employers know that if they fail to support working mothers, they lose a talented and experienced workforce. To ensure that equality continues to be central to all policy-making, an integrated, joined-up equality hub is being is being created in the Cabinet Office, at the very heart of government.

My Lords, the words “women”, “mothers” and “children” were not mentioned in the Budget. I suspect that the men making the decisions that affect women workers during lockdown have non-working wives at home and/or nannies. Will the Minister take steps to ensure fairness for self-employed women on maternity leave? If they take maternity leave, this cuts down the assessment of their average profits over three years, so that the 75,000 women who take maternity leave have lost a proportion. They have to be taken into account.

The Government pay careful and due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and advance equality of opportunity through our policies, including the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. We have made changes to that scheme, so that if a woman had a child in 2020 which meant that they did not return a 2020 tax return, they are now carved into, I believe, the fourth SEIS scheme. We continue to actively monitor the impact of the pandemic on all women and have taken action to avoid negative impacts. For example, we passed legislation ensuring that mothers are not financially disadvantaged when starting their maternity leave while on furlough.

My Lords, it is timely that we debate the TUC’s excellent report today, on International Women’s Day and as children return to school. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, said, mums are exhausted after weeks of balancing home-schooling and work. It is clear that women have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, taking on more childcare and seeing their mental health suffer. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, in the Budget, these everywhere heroes did not even rate a mention. How will the Government ensure that working mums and women in general will share the benefits of the recovery? Do the Government have a plan?

We have laid out a number of schemes, and I believe that we have rolled out unprecedented levels of economic support to those who need it most, regardless of gender. That includes sectors that employ very large numbers of women, such as retail and hospitality. The Government are continually reviewing the effectiveness of the support, and departments carefully consider the impact of their decisions on those sharing protected characteristics. This is in line both with their legal obligations and with the Government’s strong commitment to promoting fairness. Of course, men are impacted too; indeed, the latest figures show a higher redundancy rate for men. That is why we are committed to ensuring a fair recovery for all.

My Lords, as noble Lords have detailed, statistics are unequally regressive. It is well known by the Government, and corroborated by the TUC, Mumsnet, a Muslim Women Connect report and surveys, that all women—and particularly those of minority heritage—are facing adverse challenges in the workforce and are being forced out or leaving the workforce and going into traditional roles. This is not only due to historical neglect and barriers to progress but often due to children, childcare responsibilities and discrimination compounded by the lockdown period. As we mark another year of commending women’s progress, what action will the Government commit to take in undertaking a gendered approach in their economic recovery plan to foster and promote opportunities for all women, regardless of barriers of race, colour, faith and abilities, and pledge to realise their fullest potential within their choice of career or family?

The noble Baroness raised a number of important issues. I spent a lot of the weekend trawling through the Mumsnet findings, which showed that school closures have made balancing work and childcare particularly challenging for all working mothers. As for support for Muslim women, the Government Equalities Office has awarded grants to a number of organisations in the private sector. Over 25 returner programmes have been launched, and those with protected characteristics—such as women and black and ethnic minorities—have benefited from these programmes.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.