Megan Baker is a second year undergraduate History student at King’s. She is particularly interested in women’s unpaid care responsibilities, maternity leave provision, reproductive rights and violence against women.
In August 2021, pregnant Labour Party MP Stella Creasy tweeted about her struggle to keep working to represent her constituents, facing multiple important meetings in the days before giving birth. Despite being heavily pregnant and having been hospitalised for gestational diabetes, Creasy was forced to keep attending Parliament to debate and vote on bills. The situation did not improve when she gave birth; on 23 September, Creasy brought her newborn baby into the House of Commons to make a point about the lack of maternity leave that pregnant MPs, and MPs with new babies, receive. Addressing the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, she argued that Parliament is one of the few workplaces in the UK where new mothers are ‘rebuked, not supported’.
So, why are MPs in the UK not entitled to maternity leave like other employees? The EU’s 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive does not cover politicians. Though they have access to maternity leave, there is no way to vote without turning up in person; this means that pregnant MPs have to attend Parliament up until the minute they give birth and subsequently afterwards.
In February 2021, the government updated the law so that the attorney general (currently Suella Braverman) could take six months of maternity leave. Under the previous laws, Braverman would have had to resign from her job if she wanted to take maternity leave after giving birth. Government ministers are not subject to typical employee rights, as their appointment and possible dismissal are decided by the prime minister. The previous laws deterred female MPs from taking ministerial posts as they were worried about the possibility of resignation if they took maternity leave. For example, Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, who was the first Conservative minister to take maternity leave in 2016 was unsure about taking the job of sports minister because she wanted to have a baby. However, although the new law is a step in the right direction, there are criticisms over the failure to extend similar benefits to backbench MPs.
In the UK, there is currently an informal system called ‘pairing’, where an MP is matched with another MP who would vote in the opposite direction, and neither of them votes. However, this solution is inadequate as demonstrated in July 2018 when Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson was paired with a Conservative MP Brandon Lewis who ‘forgot’ he was paired and voted in favour of the government’s two Brexit bills. These bills were very narrowly passed. There is also no guarantee that pairing will be permitted as the pairing arrangement must be registered with the Whips. Before this in June 2018, Tory whips did not allow Naz Shah to pair with Jo Swinson and Laura Pidcock, who were heavily pregnant, on an important Brexit vote. Shah, therefore, had to attend the debate, even though she was using a wheelchair and on a morphine drip for severe nerve damage. It is clear that pairing, as an informal arrangement, is not a permanent solution to the lack of maternity leave provision for MPs.
Creasy was the first MP to appoint a ‘locum MP’, Kizzy Gardiner, while on maternity leave with her first daughter in 2019-20. Gardiner was in charge of managing constituency duties, meeting with ministers and doing media appearances, but was unable to speak or vote in the House of Commons. However, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) rejected Creasy’s request for a locum MP for maternity leave with her second baby in 2021. Therefore, Creasy had to work until she gave birth to her son and brought him to the House of Commons weeks after giving birth.
The system for local government is even worse; Section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972 stipulates that a councillor will lose their position if they do not attend council for six months. The policy varies by council but maternity leave is rarely included as an acceptable reason for absence. In 2015, councillor Charlene McLean lost her position as she was in hospital for months after giving birth prematurely and had to stand for re-election.
The lack of maternity leave provision for MPs appears to be a common theme in several European countries. However, the system in the United States and Ireland is arguably worse than the one in the UK- they have no formal policy for politicians, meaning that lawmakers have to make their own ad hoc arrangements within their party. Conversely, the situation in Sweden is much better in the sense that it is common for councillors to remotely attend meetings.
In my opinion, the solution lies in having a system of locum MPs and councillors being able to fill in for MPs and councillors on maternity leave. These locums must be able to fulfil all of the responsibilities required of them. As an informal solution, pairing is too unreliable as demonstrated in the case of Jo Swinson and Brandon Lewis, and pregnant MPs deserve a more formal, dependable arrangement. This issue is significant because it disproportionately affects women, thus reducing female representation in Parliament. At its most fundamental level, pregnant MPs deserve the opportunity to take time off work to recover, without the fear of losing their jobs or compromising the amount of respect they receive from their colleagues.