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The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill 2019-2021 was introduced into the House of Commons on 4 February 2021. It is scheduled to go through all remaining stages of Commons scrutiny on 11 February 2021. The Bill, Explanatory Notes written by the Government and further information can be found on the Parliamentary website.

Why is the Bill needed?

The Bill’s aim is to allow Ministers to take paid maternity leave whilst remaining in government.

Current arrangements for Ministerial maternity leave are set out in the Ministerial Code. A Minister who wants to go on maternity leave must seek permission from the Prime Minister. Another Minister already in government will be asked to temporarily cover the functions and responsibilities of the Minister on leave.

The Government states in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill that these arrangements are “particularly difficult to apply” to a Minister in a “very senior office” (such as a Secretary of State). This is because the “legal excise of functions of such roles cannot be ‘covered’ by another Minister.”

The Government argues that for these legal functions to be executed, another Minister may have to be appointed to the same rank. There are statutory limits on the number of Ministers (109 paid Ministers in total, and 95 paid or unpaid Ministers in the House of Commons). If another Minister had to be appointed to Cabinet-level to cover maternity leave, the Government states that this could result in a breach of the statutory limit on the number of Ministers.

What does the Bill do?

The Bill would allow the Prime Minster to designate a Minister wishing to take maternity leave as a ‘Minister on Leave’. This designation will not count towards the overall number of Ministers when calculating the statutory limits. This means that the Prime Minister can then also appoint someone else to the role vacated by the Minster going on maternity leave, without exceeding the statutory limits on the number of Ministers.

A designation of ‘Minister on Leave’ would automatically terminate after six months. During that time, the Minster on Leave would be entitled to an allowance equivalent to their Ministerial salary. The Bill does not guarantee that the Minister on Leave will be appointed to their previous ministerial role after their maternity leave ends – as with all ministerial appointments, this is at the discretion of the Prime Minster.

Opposition post holders

The Bill also enables salaried members of the Official Opposition to take six months’ paid maternity leave. The Bill applies to: the Leader of the Opposition in both Houses, the Chief Opposition Whip in both Houses, and two Assistant Opposition Whips in the Commons.

Other types of parental leave

The Bill only makes provision for maternity leave for birth mothers. It does not make provisions for other types of parental leave such as paternity leave, adoption leave or shared parental leave.

Relevance to Devolved Administrations

The Bill applies to UK Government Ministers, not to Ministers in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru or the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Statutory maternity leave and pay

Employees who are pregnant are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave (26 weeks of ordinary leave and 26 weeks of additional leave). Employees can begin their maternity leave by giving notice any time after the 11th week before the expected week of childbirth. If not already commenced, maternity leave automatically begins the day after childbirth.

Employees who are pregnant and who have worked for their employer for 26 weeks by the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP). This is paid at a rate of 90% of the employee’s average earnings for the first six weeks. It is then paid at a statutory rate (£151.20 per week) for a further 33 weeks.

Some employees will have a right to enhanced maternity pay under their contract (called ‘occupational maternity pay’).

Maternity provision for MPs

MPs taking maternity leave can apply to the Speaker of the House for a proxy vote which allows another MP to vote on their behalf. For new mothers, the duration of the proxy vote is six months.

MPs continue to receive full pay for six months whilst on maternity leave. MPs on maternity leave can also apply for funding for additional staff. This means MPs may be able to hire a member of staff to cover their constituency duties. However, some MPs have said that they still struggle to obtain funds for maternity cover.

Statistics on maternity pay

A YouGov survey commissioned by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that in 2016 around 18% of organisations had a maternity pay policy of 26 weeks at or near the full rate of pay, similar to the policy outlined in this Bill. This varies considerably between sectors; 42% of organisations in the public sector and 11% in the private sector offered 26 weeks at or near the full pay.

Reaction to the Bill

While the Bill has generally been welcomed by stakeholders, a number of groups have argued that this should be taken as an opportunity to address both wider problems with Statutory Maternity Pay and issues related to maternity leave for MPs.

Commons and Lords stages of the Bill

The Bill passed all of its Commons stages without amendment on 11 February 2021. During debates on Second Reading and in Committee, many MPs expressed support for the Bill. A number of MPs also raised concern about the Bill having too narrow a scope. Some noted that the Bill did not make provision for paternity, adoption or shared parental leave. Others argued that the Bill should have been taken as an opportunity to address problems with parental cover for MPs and wider problems with maternity leave and pay.

During the Lords stages of the Bill, the Government accepted an amendment to replace the gender-neutral term “person” with the term “mother” and “expectant mother”. This amendment was accepted by the House of Commons. No other amendments were made.

The Bill passed all of its stages and was given Royal Assent on 1 March 2021.

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