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Ministerial maternity leave bill highlights need to bring politicians’ rights into 21st century

This piecemeal change to ministerial maternity leave highlights the need for a comprehensive review of the employment rights of politicians

MPs are voting this week on whether to allow ministers to take paid maternity leave. This piecemeal change highlights the need for a comprehensive review of the employment rights of politicians, says Tim Durrant

This week parliament will consider legislation to allow ministers to take paid maternity leave, rather than having to resign their ministerial role to get time off when they are due to give birth. This has been prompted by the fact that Suella Braverman the attorney general, is expecting her second child in the coming weeks.

It is not straightforward to arrange cover for political roles. MPs are individually elected by, and accountable to, their constituents – a personal mandate which cannot readily be transferred to another person. Similarly, some ministerial powers can only be exercised by the individual holding a specific ministerial office. However, the government is right to try to resolve these issues: MPs and ministers should have the same basic rights as everyone else, and government will benefit from keeping experienced ministers in their roles and avoiding unnecessary reshuffles.

The legislation to change ministerial maternity rights is very limited

The new law, the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill,[1] is designed to solve the question of Braverman’s leave: it provides up to six months’ paid leave for ministers in the run-up to and after giving birth, meaning that someone else can take on their ministerial responsibilities without breaching the legal cap on the number of paid ministerial positions. It is not yet clear who will cover the attorney general role while Braverman is on leave.

As the name suggests, it only covers leave for expectant mothers – there is no provision of paternity or adoption leave, unlike wider laws on parental leave. This is something that the Labour Party have said they hope to revisit in the future.[2] It is understandable that the government has limited the scope of the legislation, given the need to get the law in place before Braverman goes on leave (although arguably it should have seen this coming months ago). But the government should revisit the wider questions soon and in a more comprehensive manner.  

MPs, not just ministers, need greater flexibility

While the legal limits on the number of ministerial salaries raise particular questions about leave for those on the government frontbench, it is not only ministers who lack clear maternity leave rights. Labour MPs Tulip Siddiq [3] and Stella Creasy[4] have both spoken about the difficulty of arranging maternity cover when they had children in recent years.

But things are slowly changing. MPs who take parental leave – both mothers and fathers[5] – can now arrange for a proxy vote to be cast on their behalf by a party colleague. This proxy voting scheme was piloted before the pandemic for new parents and has now been temporarily extended to all MPs if they want to take it up for reasons connected to the pandemic; but there is no clarity over what will happen after the pandemic.

However, voting is only part of an MP’s responsibility in parliament – during her maternity leave, Creasy still attended the Commons to table amendments and participate in meetings. And the MP who cast the proxy vote cannot fulfil another MP’s duties to their constituents. Creasy was the first MP to appoint a locum (at her own initiative) to cover her constituency work, in early 2020.[6] MPs are now able to apply for funding for additional staff during parental leave, but according to the House of Commons library, ‘some MPs have said that they still struggle to obtain funds for maternity cover’.[7] There are still no standard arrangements for MPs in these circumstances.

Parental leave is not the only issue

In the past, ministers have also had to step down, rather than take leave, when they have been seriously ill. Perhaps most notably, James Brokenshire stepped down as Northern Ireland secretary in early 2018, in the midst of serious Brexit negotiations, following a cancer diagnosis. “If you were a senior civil servant you’d have sick leave to deal with cancer treatment or whatever,” Brokenshire told the Institute. “Whereas as a minister, particularly as a secretary of state, that’s really difficult.”

However, the situation seems to have improved in the last two years: Brokenshire recently announced[8] that he would be taking leave for further treatment for his cancer – this time, he has not had to resign from his ministerial role. But the arrangements in such circumstances remain ad hoc, and should be clearly defined.

There is movement in the right direction. But the changes that have been made are fragmented and reactive. The government is missing an opportunity for proper reform that would benefit MPs, ministers and their teams. It should look at the rights of politicians in the round and work with the opposition, parliamentary authorities and others to make sure the working conditions of MPs are fit for the 21st century.


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