Can ministers take maternity leave?
The ministerial code allows ministers to take maternity leave of up to six months at the discretion of the prime minister. Under this provision, ministers are not permitted to exercise any of their ministerial roles while on leave. Another minister would typically be expected to cover their responsibilities.
This means that if a minister wished to take paid maternity leave, the minister appointed to temporarily replace them could not typically be paid.
In response to this problem, the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 introduced formal paid maternity leave for ministers. This legislation allows the prime minister to designate a pregnant minister ‘minister on leave’ – paid – for up to six months, and to appoint another paid minister to temporarily fill the role. 41 Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021
The 2021 Act does not guarantee that the minister on maternity leave will be reappointed to the same role after the six month period – this is at the discretion of the prime minister.
Have ministers taken maternity leave in the past?
Before 2021, ministers took maternity leave on an informal basis. Yvette Cooper followed departmental civil service guidelines when she took maternity leave from the Department of Health in 2001. 42 Watt N, ‘Pregnant minister praised for taking maternity leave’, The Guardian, 16 Feb 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/feb/16/uk.politicalnews, retrieved 8 November 2022. She has claimed that this ”informal approach proved inadequate” when she sought to take maternity leave from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which she felt was ”not as supportive”. 43 HC Deb 11 February 2021 vol. 689, col. 552
The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act became law in 2021 to allow then-attorney general Suella Braverman to take maternity leave. She was designated minister on leave from March to September 2021, during which time Michael Ellis replaced her as attorney general. Several other ministers have since taken leave under the provisions of the Act.
Chloe Smith replaced Michelle Donelan as secretary of state at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology for twelve weeks in 2023. In an interview with the Institute for Government, she drew a distinction between the constitutional status of replacement ministers and the way in which she chose to approach her role.
She said: “Although I had the full legal empowerment [as secretary of state], I chose to play it in a way that was inclusive of what Michelle would have to return to do later on”.
What if a minister has to take long-term leave for another reason?
The ministerial code extends discretionary leave to ministers who must take any form of extended absence. However, the provisions of the 2021 Act do not apply to absence for reasons other than maternity. The limits on the number of paid ministers make it difficult for a prime minister to offer ministers extended paid leave for any other reason.
In 2018, James Brokenshire stepped down as Northern Ireland secretary while receiving cancer treatment. However, in 2021, he was able to take leave to receive cancer treatment without resigning his role as minister of state for security.
Are other types of parental leave available to ministers?
Under the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act, only an expectant mother within 12 weeks of expected childbirth or four weeks after childbirth may be designated minister on leave. The Act was criticised in parliament by chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee Caroline Nokes for failing to address adoption leave or shared parental leave. 44 Elgot J, ‘MPs pass “long overdue” bill for ministers’ paid maternity leave’, The Guardian, 11 Feb 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/11/mps-pass-long-overdue-bill-for-ministers-paid-maternity-leave, retrieved 8 November 2022.
However, the December 2022 update to the ministerial code introduced ‘adoption or paternity’ as reasons why a minister might seek the permission of the PM to take an extended leave of absence.
What are the arrangements for shadow ministers?
Members of the official opposition who are paid under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 – the leader of the opposition and the opposition whips in both houses – are also entitled to formal paid maternity leave. In such cases, temporary appointments may be made by the leader of the opposition.
Can MPs take maternity leave?
As MPs are officeholders, not employees, they are not eligible for statutory maternity leave. However, some provisions exist to enable MPs to mitigate their workload while pregnant or caring for a baby.
MPs who are new parents can appoint a proxy to vote for them in divisions in the House of Commons. This scheme was made permanent in 2020 following a successful pilot scheme in 2019.
Kelly R, ‘Proxy voting divisions in the House’, House of Commons Library, 23 June 2023, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8359/
Unlike the provisions for ministers, which only apply to new mothers, MPs’ parental leave is also available to new fathers and adoptive parents.
Parliament.UK, ‘Proxy voting scheme’, https://www.parliament.uk/globalassets/july-2021-proxy-voting-scheme.pdf, retrieved 8 November 2022.
In 2019, Bim Afolami became the first MP to take paternity leave and vote by proxy.
Tweet from @BimAfolami, 21 February 2019, https://twitter.com/BimAfolami/status/1098522722018181120?s=20, retrieved 8 November 2022.
Some funding is available for additional constituency support for MPs who are new parents, but – as elected representatives – they cannot easily delegate their parliamentary responsibilities.. This has been criticised by MPs including Stella Creasy, who chose to appoint a locum to cover constituency work while she was pregnant in 2019 and 2021.
Hinsliff G, ‘Stella Creasy on her lonely maternity cover battle: “Women should be able to have kids and do politics”, The Guardian, 30 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/oct/30/stella-creasy-lonely-maternity-cover-battle-women-should-be-able-have-kids-do-politics, retrieved 8 November 2022.
How does parental leave work in the devolved administrations?
There is no formal limit on the number of paid Scottish government ministers, so a minister may take paid leave and be temporarily replaced without breaching statutory requirements. There is therefore no Scottish equivalent of the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act; instead, ministers may take maternity leave at the discretion of the first minister. 49 IfG correspondence with Scottish Parliament Information Service. At least two Scottish government ministers have previously taken maternity leave. 50 Gov.Scot, ‘Finance and Economy Secretary announces Pregnancy, 8 February 2022, https://www.gov.scot/news/finance-and-economy-secretary-announces-pregnancy/, retrieved 8 November 2022.
The Welsh ministerial code provides for up to six months of paid maternity or other leave at the discretion of the first minister. An interim minister is appointed during this period. 51 Welsh government ministerial code, https://gov.wales/ministerial-code-html, retrieved 8 November 2022.
The Northern Ireland ministerial code does not include provisions for ministerial maternity leave. 52 Northern Ireland ministerial code, https://www.northernireland.gov.uk/topics/your-executive/ministerial-code, retrieved 8 November 2022.