Jessica Elgot and Alexandra ToppingWed, 10 February 2021, 8:30 pm
Stella Creasy, the senior Labour MP, is threatening to take the government to court over a bill giving six months’ paid maternity leave to cabinet ministers only – as she discloses she is nine weeks’ pregnant.
Creasy told the Guardian it was “terrifying” to reveal she was in the early stages of pregnancy, especially with a history of miscarriage. But she felt she was left with no alternative to draw attention to a system that would effectively award better maternity rights as a reward for political promotion, “like a company car”.
Last week the government announced plans to change the law to give cabinet ministers six months’ maternity leave in order to allow the attorney general, Suella Braverman, to keep her post after having a baby. It faced a backlash as it emerged that backbench MPs would be denied similar rights, however.
The Guardian understands the government is hoping the tight scope of the bill, along with Labour’s support, will mean it can avoid any amendments being put forward to the bill, which will be laid before parliament on Thursday. Labour will back its move to pass the bill swiftly before Braverman’s baby is due at the end of the month, despite some concerns. The current bill will only apply to secretaries of state, and award more paid leave to cabinet ministers than the general public are entitled to.
Creasy, who is pregnant with her second child, pioneered a system of having a “locum MP” in place to continue her constituency work when she had her first child in 2019, but had to fight for support from the MPs’ funding body in order to hire cover.
She has been the only MP to gain that funding, with several others privately admitting they feel there is no formal, transparent system for MPs, apart from ad-hoc requests for funding where the burden is on the pregnant woman.
Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, said she had been given legal advice that the move could be a breach of human rights law – of a right to equal treatment and the right to a family life.
She said she “does not begrudge” Braverman her maternity leave but she would be prepared to make a legal case that she had been discriminated against as a backbench MP, with fewer rights than more senior colleagues. She said it would be a case intended to highlight the discrimination faced by pregnant women across all sectors.
“There’s no difference between myself and the attorney general in terms of the impact of having a baby on you,” she said. “We are in an environment where thousands of pregnant women are facing risks in the workplace, including the risk of the loss of their job. The message that we’re sending is that we treat maternity leave like a benefit, like a company car. In other words, only paid maternity leave for management.”
She said it was an “extreme measure” for any MP to consider legal action but she believed she had been misled two years ago that swift reform to maternity rights was not possible – when now the government intended to pass a bill in a single day.
“This piece of legislation only helps a spectacularly small number of women,” she said. “For the last two years, I’ve been listening to assurances that people would get on and do something about these anomalies, so that we’re not in a position where if you are a woman or a man of childbearing or child rearing age, you are a risk to elect.”
Creasy said the current system for getting cover for backbench MPs was severely lacking. “Nobody knows what that cover is, how long it lasts, what it’s supposed to pay for. Unlike ministers who will have a clearly defined benefit.”
Lawyers had advised that there was an “arguable case” that she was being discriminated against, she said. “It’s classic suffragettes – ‘deeds, not words’… if there is not progress tomorrow, if ministers’ words don’t lead to action, then I am prepared to take this further.”
Creasy said she had decided it was necessary to take the step of revealing she was pregnant herself – and directly affected. “It’s terrifying because I have a history of failed pregnancies and I’m still at an early stage. But if this goes well, I have just as much of a deadline as the attorney general, as do the other pregnant women across the country.”
While Labour will support the bill, they are expected to raise a number of key concerns, including pregnant women unlawfully being put on statutory sick pay during the pandemic, affecting maternity pay and other entitlements.
Cat Smith, the shadow minister for democracy, said: “The speed with which the government is acting to make sure the attorney general can take maternity leave is in stark contrast to its failure to support pregnant women facing discrimination and hardship throughout this pandemic.
“It is right that the attorney general is granted maternity rights – but the government must not turn the clock back on employment rights for women and leave pregnant mothers without the basic protections they need.”
Joeli Brearley, founder of the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said campaigners had spent years pleading with the government to do more for pregnant women. “It has fallen on deaf ears, with a trail of broken promises and empty rhetoric,” said Brearley. “Now that one of their team is pregnant and needs support, they have rushed through a bill to make sure she is properly remunerated and protected.”
A coalition of a dozen women and charitable organisations, led by the Centenary Action Group, told the government that if the bill passed without further reforms, it would “set a precedent of a two-tier system of maternity and paternity rights”.
The group cited research from the TUC that found one in four pregnant women reported discrimination at work during the pandemic and research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs during the pandemic.