Adequate parental leave and pay ‘critical’ for employee wellbeing

Out-Law News | 29 Nov 2021 | 3:25 pm | 2 min. read

The discussion over whether it was appropriate for an English MP to bring her baby to a parliamentary debate has highlighted the need for adequate childcare and parental leave, employment experts say.

Stella Creasy was reprimanded for bringing her three-month old son to a debate in Westminster Hall. She said she was forced to do so in the absence of paid maternity leave for MPs.

House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle has subsequently announced a review of the rules around bringing children into parliament, saying: “This House has to be able to function professionally and without disturbance. However, sometimes there may be occasions when the Chair can exercise discretion, assuming that the business is not being disturbed.”

Equality law expert Kate Dodd of Pinsent Masons said the real issue was around flexibility and proper access to maternity leave and pay for MPs, rather than bringing children into the workplace.

“This to me is quite a specific case – because maternity leave and pay is not available, and there seems to be scant reasons given as to why breastfeeding MPs can’t participate in key votes and other matters from home, when it was perfectly possible to so during the height of the pandemic,” Dodd said.

Dodd Kate

Kate Dodd

Legal Director

Trying to work without adequate childcare in place can have an impact on performance, office attendance, mental health and wellbeing

Dodd said Creasy’s situation was reflected in workplaces across the UK.

“We are seeing increasing instances of employees trying to work without adequate childcare in place, often because they did so during the pandemic, out of necessity, and are unable or unwilling to put proper measures back in place. Unfortunately, this can have an impact on performance, office attendance, mental health and wellbeing and – ultimately – the children they are trying to care for while working,” Dodd said.

Creasy argued that she was able to fully participate in the debate she was attending. She said she was happy to use the Westminster nursery for her older child, but this was unsuitable for a young baby.

“I think it is difficult to see that a baby in a parliamentary debate will necessarily mean that the MP cannot adequately participate – although that obviously depends on the particular child,” said Pinsent Masons employment expert Anne Sammon.

“But, for employees more generally, I think attempting to combine childcare and work can be very challenging – and this is why it is great that in the UK we have the ability to take up to 12 months’ maternity or shared parental leave, as it means that employees can have time off to look after a young child. I would much rather that the debate focused on what the appropriate level of payment should be for that and whether what we currently provide is adequate,” Sammon said.

Employment laws currently do not give employees a statutory right to bring their child into work, even in an emergency, and employees are generally expected to devote their full time and attention to their work during their contractual hours.

Pinsent Masons’ Susannah Donaldson said: “It would be unrealistic to expect an employee to fully focus on their work while caring for a child. Although it might have been the norm during the pandemic, these were exceptional circumstances.”

“Employers would be required to ensure the workplace was a safe environment for the child and there would rightly be concerns about employers' liability insurance and public liability insurance,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson said one solution can be enhanced family leave provision, providing greater financial support and flexibility to parents. Several private companies, including Abrdn and Diageo, have introduced such policies.

In late 2018 the government launched the Good Work Plan to reform workers’ rights legislation, with an associated consultation the following year on reforming the current rules around family-related leave, pay and flexible working. However, the government is yet to respond to the consultation.

More recently, in September 2021, the government announced plans to introduce five days of unpaid carers’ leave and many organisations have already made this move independently. Donaldson said better access to low-cost childcare and better onsite childcare facilities would also benefit employees across all sectors.