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If new mums in Parliament are getting a raw deal, what hope for everyone else?

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The UK is one of the worst countries in Europe when it comes to parental benefits. After this week’s shenanigans in Westminster, it’s not hard to see why.
Offical portrait of Julian Smith MP
Julian Smith MP/Credit: Chris McAndrew

The Tory Chief Whip is facing calls to resign after it emerged that he broke a ‘pairing’ arrangement with a Lib Dem MP on maternity leave in a desperate bid to win a knife-edge Brexit vote.

‘Pairing’ is the parliamentary convention by which different parties come to a mutual agreement to allow pairs of MPs not to vote because one is unable to attend due to illness, travel problems or maternity leave.

Now it seems that Julian Smith ordered at least three of his MPs to break the pairing arrangement ahead of Tuesday night’s crunch vote on the customs union.

One of those MPs – party Chairman Brandon Lewis – voted despite being paired with Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson, who gave birth three weeks ago.

And despite the uproar since, a former Tory minister complained to BBC Newsnight’s Political Editor that “ladies have been having babies in this place for donkey’s years. They never needed pairing before now”.

If that’s how new mums are treated in Parliament, it’s little wonder that the UK is one of the worst countries in Europe when it comes to parental benefits.

Missing out

Last year we reported that UK mums get one of the lowest amounts of decently-paid maternity leave in Europe.

At that time, the UK ranked 22 out of 24 amongst European countries that offer statutory maternity leave.

And while mums in the UK get only six weeks’ decently-paid maternity leave, most European countries offer three months or more.

Things aren’t much better when it comes to time off for new dads, either.

Just last month, we published analysis showing that one in four dads who had a child in the last 12 months didn’t qualify for statutory paternity pay.

And even though the government brought in shared parental leave and pay in 2015, two in five dads aren’t entitled to it and only 8% of those who are take advantage of it.

Proxy war

Of course, MPs themselves still don’t have the formal right to take time off with new children, as this week’s events have so clearly demonstrated.

That’s why we’ve called for the introduction of a proxy voting system that would allow MPs who become parents to take time off work with cover arrangements in place.

This would give prospective parliamentary candidates confidence that being an MP is compatible with childcare responsibilities, as well as allowing existing MPs to prioritise their children.

And let’s not forget that the House of Commons is one of the highest profile workplaces in the country, where employment practice often informs public debate.

So ensuring that MPs who become parents have access to a proper period of leave from work would set a good example to the rest of the UK workforce.

A better way

We know that decently-paid maternity, paternity and parental leave helps new mums and dads share caring responsibilities for new arrivals and gives them time to bond with their children.

That’s why we want the government to introduce the right to statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental pay for all workers from day one in the job – not just employees.

And we’d like ministers to increase statutory maternity and paternity pay so that new parents aren’t forced to go back to work before they’re ready.

We also welcome the government’s review of shared parental leave – if ministers are serious about supporting dads to play a greater role in childcare, then a simpler, more flexible system is vital.

Above all, we advise all working parents to join a union.

Unionised workplaces have better work-life balance practices – like homeworking or flexitime – and are more likely to offer financial help with childcare.

Finally, if you’re unclear about your rights to maternity leave, take a look at our workplace guidance here.