UK

Government U-turns on ‘inappropriate’ maternity leave law

Suella Braverman, 40, who is expecting her second child at the beginning of next month, is the inspiration behind the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill, which seeks to update the treatment of pregnant Cabinet ministers

The government has caved into a Lords revolt over a new law allowing ministers to go on paid maternity leave – after fury that it referred to ‘pregnant people’.

The legislation is being rushed through after it emerged that the Attorney General, Suella Braverman would have to resign from her post when she stops working to have her second child this month. 

The legislation will give the PM the ability to designate a minister wishing to take maternity leave as a ‘minister on leave’.

That will mean they can appoint someone else to the role without exceeding the legal limits on the number of ministers.

However, the Government was accused of ‘erasing women’ over the wording of the Bill.

Tory peer Baroness Noakes led the charge, dismissing as ‘garbage’ claims the word women could not be used in the legislation.

In a highly unusual move at second reading, the veteran backbencher put down an amendment expressing regret at its drafting which ‘does not respect the fact that only women can be pregnant’.

She said: ‘It is a biological fact that only women can be pregnant and give birth. That is why laws that relate to maternity issues have in the past routinely been drafted using the words woman, she and her.

‘It’s just not good enough to say that we have gender-neutral drafting now.

‘If this Bill passes unamended it will be yet another precedent on the statute book for the elimination of women.’

Arguing that the Bill ‘speaks the language of a metropolitan elite’, she added: ‘This is not a party political issue but it grieves me that a Conservative Government… is abandoning women.’

Opposition frontbencher Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town highlighted the ‘unusual choice of words’ in the Bill.

She said: ‘It seems at odds with other legislation on maternity rights and protection.’

Former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman, a crossbencher, also condemned the gender-neutral wording of the Bill as an ‘awkward and ugly distortion of the English language and an affront to common sense’.

Labour peer and world-leading fertility expert Lord Winston said: ‘The fact is only a woman can give rise to a baby.’

Former Labour MP and non-affiliated peer Baroness Hoey said the public would not understand a Bill about maternity ‘avoiding the word woman’.

She added: ‘If we leave the wording as it is then I think that sends a signal that… we are not prepared to stand up for what is right and decent and common sense.’

Government minister Lord True had insisted: ‘The language used in this Bill is in line with current drafting convention and guidance.

‘It is legally accurate and achieves the aim of ensuring that female ministers can take paid maternity leave.’

But Lord True said today the Government was willing to accept a cross-party amendment to the legislation.

The change will remove the word person from the Bill and replace it with ‘mother or expectant mother’.

Lord True said the Government had listened to the strength of feeling in the House and the amended wording would be ‘legally acceptable’. 

Ministers faced fury after it emerged that the draft Bill referred to 'the pregnant person'

Ministers faced fury after it emerged that the draft Bill referred to ‘the pregnant person’

Lady Noakes hailed the change as a ‘great day for women’.

She said peers had tapped into a ‘huge well of unhappiness about how women have been eliminated from public discourse and public policy’.

Tory Lord Lucas, who proposed the change of wording, said: ‘Words matter, especially on the long road to equality.

‘The use of the word ‘person’ in the Bill erases the reality that overwhelmingly maternity is undertaken by women and not by men.

‘To leave ‘person’ in place would be a step backwards in women’s equality.’

Labour peer and world-leading fertility expert Lord Winston, who backed the change to the Bill’s wording, said: ‘I am certainly not a bigot. I am certainly not opposed to people’s different sexuality and that certainly applies to transgender.’

He added: ‘I don’t believe it is anything to do with gender. I believe it is about women, I believe it is about the uterus, I believe it is about the connection with the baby before and after birth. That is a unique, special environment.’

Also welcoming the move, Tory peer Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, said: ‘This is I think a beginning. It’s a very wonderful beginning. It’s the first step in clarifying some of the legislation that in recent years appears to have become rather muddled.’

The bill stated: ‘A person designated as a Minister on Leave under this section is to be paid an allowance in accordance with section 2.

‘The person is pregnant and it is no more than 12 weeks before the expected week of childbirth. The person has given birth to a child within the previous four weeks.’ 

Mrs Braverman, 40, is due to become the most senior minister to give birth while in government. She had her first baby as a backbench MP.

Until now, only junior ministers have been able to take maternity leave and have another member of government take over their role, as sports minister Tracey Crouch did in 2015. There is no mechanism for top rank ministers to do so. 


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