The Petition of residents of the United Kingdom,
Declares that pregnancy and giving birth during a global pandemic and national lockdown is extremely stressful for new and expectant parents; notes that the UK Government has categorised pregnant woman as “extremely vulnerable” and advised them to observe particularly stringent measures to protect themselves and their unborn babies; further notes that new research is actively being undertaken regarding raised levels of mental health problems for expectant and new mothers and fathers during the COVID-19 pandemic; notes that early experiences of a baby are critical for their future development and future outcomes, and that new parents need time to ‘socialise’ with their babies and introduce them to nursery or other childcare provision; declares that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a hugely adverse effect on early life experiences for new babies in that it has deprived them of their parents’ opportunities to expose their babies to wider developmental experiences outside the home, including experience with wider family such as grandparents; and further notes that the Government has made specific arrangements to protect workers with its Job Retention Scheme but has not made additional arrangements to offer further support to workers on maternity and paternity leave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the UK Government to immediately institute extended maternity and paternity leave for new and expectant parents.
And the petitioners remain etc.—[Presented by Patricia Gibson, Official Report, 15 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 610.]
Observations from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully):
The Government understand and are sympathetic to the challenges that pregnant women and new parents faced during the covid-19 lockdown period. Parents play a hugely valuable role in society, carrying out the important and often demanding job of raising the next generation.
We recognise that the covid-19 lockdown period had a significant impact on parents’ ability to “socialise” their babies—whether through visits to family and friends or attendance at parent and baby groups—and that some parents were unable to return to work at the end of their statutory parental leave due to the close of early years provision. While we understand that some new parents have faced additional challenges due to covid-19 and lockdown, we believe that the current arrangements for parental leave and pay in the UK are, overall, already generous and flexible. We offer more than three times the EU minimum requirement for Maternity Leave which requires Member States to give pregnant women and new mothers access to 14 weeks of paid leave (the UK provides 39 weeks of paid leave). The vast majority of parents also have access to other entitlements to time off work, including paid Annual Leave and Unpaid Parental Leave. The Government believe that our current package of family-friendly entitlements, alongside these other entitlements, enables most mothers and fathers to balance work with their caring responsibilities in the first year of their child’s life—including in these unprecedented times.
The decision to lockdown was not taken lightly but this was necessary to protect our NHS and save lives, including those of parents and their babies. We are pleased that as a result of the interventions that the Government made, the incidence of covid-19 infections has come down significantly and we have been able to relax many of the social distancing measures that we had put in place. These relaxations have meant nurseries and other early years facilities have been able to open up since June and most parents are now able to meet with extended family members and friends, subject to observing the continuing advice on social distancing.
The Government have necessarily prioritised initiatives during the covid-19 crisis which had the potential to support as many people as possible. This support includes:
the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme,
the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, and
the Job Retention Bonus for employers who retain staff until January 2021.
Employers have also been able to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to furlough parents who have been unable to work as a result of the closure of schools, nurseries and childcare services. The ability to furlough individuals who are unable to work because of childcare commitments provides support to new parents who are due to return from statutory parental leave, including individuals who have not previously been furloughed as a result of them being on parental leave. The scheme closed for new entrants on 30 June, but we have made an exception for individuals on statutory parental leave.
The Petitions Select Committee has done an admirable job in looking into a range of issues that have had an impact on new parents during the pandemic, from childcare to mental health and wellbeing. We are currently considering the full suite of recommendations that they have to Government, which includes recommendations to extend Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Leave and Pay to support parents who have been affected by the pandemic. We are carefully considering these recommendations with a view to providing a comprehensive response as soon as possible ahead of the Committee’s September deadline.
Please note that I have written to David Linden MP and Gavin Robinson MP in the same terms.