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MPs chose a petition demanding extra parental leave due to the pandemic as the first topic for discussion in new series of debates.
MPs have debated calls for new parents to be granted extra parental leave this year due to the impact of coronavirus. A petition asking for three months of extra leave attracted nearly a quarter of a million signatures. It was the first issue to be debated when the House of Commons reopened its second debating chamber yesterday, for the first time since Covid hit.
Unable to hold a debate until now parliament’s petitions committee held a virtual inquiry into the issue. Committee chair, Labour’s Cat McKinnell, opened the debate by saying, “The message that emerged from our Committee’s inquiry was clear: the impact of this pandemic on new parents has been profound, and a failure to act now risks impacting the mental and physical health and wellbeing not just of new parents in the immediate term but of their babies in the long term.”
She read out damning testimony from new parents and campaigners that suggested the government was more interested in whether people could play golf or go to the pub than the fate of new parents through the pandemic.
Parents expressed concern that they weren’t able to get their babies weighed or health checked due to lockdown. Measures such as free dental care that come with parental leave were unavailable as dentists were shut. Some wanted more time to help settle their children into childcare because the babies had had so little interaction with other people due to quarantine restrictions.
Many speakers raised the issue of new fathers being excluded from antenatal appointments and sometimes even the birth itself due to a patchwork of rules and limits on access to hospitals. Some drew attention to the fact that the Prime Minister himself had become a father again during lockdown. McKinnell called on Boris Johnson to ensure all fathers could be at the birth of their child if they want to be.
SNP MP Owen Thompson said the government had offered “more of a shrug of the shoulders than a helping hand” to new parents.
Northern Irish DUP MP Gavin Robinson accused the government of being ‘tone deaf’ in its response to the petition and the committee’s inquiry. He added, “Given that we are potentially entering another period of restrictions within wider society—of lockdowns and circuit breakers— I ask that the Government accept today at least that this issue has not gone away. The pressures that have manifested themselves in huge levels of public support for the e-petition and in the contributions that we have made in Parliament through the Committee’s report and through the subsequent report in September show that this debate is not over.”
Responding to the debate for the government, minister Paul Scully said, “I sympathise with new mothers and parents who have been unable to spend their parental leave in the way they envisaged prior to the pandemic and lockdown.”
However he refused the request for extra maternity or parental leave insisting that UK maternity leave provision is generous. Though he was interrupted by MPs who pointed out that while maternity leave is fairly long in the UK it’s not well funded and that excludes men who want to take some of the leave.
Scully concluded, “The Government believe that the entitlement to 52 weeks of maternity leave and 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance is already very generous. I should perhaps add that those entitlements are provided to enable pregnant women and new mothers to prepare for and recover from birth and bond with their child.
“We need to make sure that as we relax lockdown, there are new opportunities for new parents to spend their maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave in the way that they envisaged prior to the pandemic.”