Exclusive: Government urged to end 'mum-shaming' amid warning women face 'tsunami of unemployment' without more help
Stella Creasy holds her baby during an Urgent Question in the Commons (Credit: PA)
A "tsunami" of working mums could be forced out of the labour market if ministers fail to prioritise parents in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, an MP who recently returned from maternity leave has warned.
Stella Creasy faced an array of challenges after discovering she was pregnant with Hettie, now nine months old, following a "soul destroying" fertility battle.
And she is now joining charities and campaigners to urge action from the Government to stave off a female jobs crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Labour politician wanted to organise a locum to cover for her while she took maternity leave - ensuring her constituency casework was dealt with and that her London seat of Walthamstow was properly represented, without putting an extra burden on her staff.
But trying to secure the arrangement through the parliamentary authorities early, before announcing her pregnancy more widely, proved to be a long, unnecessarily complicated battle.
"It dragged on for so long and I started to feel like they thought if they didn't answer me, I'd go away," she told PoliticsHome.
"I was concerned about my own staff, and wanted to tell them I was pregnant and that we had a plan, and this is how everything was going to be covered while I'm away. Above all, I wanted to be a good employer."
Depsite managing to secure cover in the form of Kizzy Gardiner, who stood in for Ms Creasy until May this year, the concept of a "locum" MP is not yet standard procedure.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the watchdog presiding over expenses and other administrative functions, offers guidance on a range of options for MPs who become parents, but there are no formalised arrangements.
"MPs as independent office holders are not employees and are therefore not eligible for statutory maternity, paternity or adoption leave," the guidance states.
"Every single time we try to open up politics and make it more inclusive, there seems to be a block" - Stella Creasy
"In practice, many MPs who are new parents do take time away from Parliament following the arrival of a baby. There are no formal procedures or requirements in place in Parliament or within the political parties to take leave."
But Ms Creasy is arguing for more concrete arrangements "on the public's terms, not parliament's terms" to be put in place to encourage people with "different life experiences" into politics.
"Every single time we try to open up politics and make it more inclusive, there seems to be a block," Ms Creasy said.
"Because in reality, politics starts with and is set up for the default, and the default is a white man, of a certain age, with his own independent needs and even his own nanny.
"I'm not being difficult, I just have different needs. I wanted to know who was going to cover my role on maternity leave, and wrote to IPSA to say that locums should at least be offered as a standard policy, so that nobody - men or women of childbearing age - would be put off standing.
"That still hasn't happened. And when [Conservative MP] Siobhan Baillie asked for a locum when she had a baby this year, as far as I know she was ignored."
IPSA argues that it does not have the jurisdiction to implement such rules for politicians, and that it is for parliament to set its own rules on such matters.
Ms Baillie - elected for the first time in Stroud last year - said abusive messages were sent to her office after she announced her plan to take a minimum of four weeks maternity leave after the birth of her daughter in May.
"Maternity cover is just the tip of the iceberg," Ms Creasy added. "Since coming back to work, I've been told by other women that I shouldn't take on leadership roles in the Labour movement, because having a baby is 'very difficult'.
"I've been told not to put myself forward for things because people won't vote for me, because it would be frowned upon.
"It's mum-shaming, it’s a mum penalty, this idea that you are somehow wiped out and not as committed or competent because you've had a baby.
"And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you start to doubt yourself with this constant barrage, and you think 'well, maybe I shouldn't actually be doing this'."
The 43-year-old found herself on the receiving end of another backlash when she took her daughter into the Commons chamber in June, to speak during an Urgent Question on abortion provision in Northern Ireland.
"I'd planned everything so she would be asleep when I went into the chamber, but two minutes before the UQ she woke up," she said.
"I couldn't leave her with anyone else - nobody else would have been allowed to hold her anyway due to restrictions - so I had no choice but to take her with me.
"Afterwards, I got grief from other politicians telling me it was inappropriate, and was chastised by the parliamentary authorities and told that it shouldn't happen again."
She added: "I wasn’t going to let the women of Northern Ireland down. And I refuse to accept these attitudes and barriers for the next generation of men and women coming into politics.
"It's not about special treatment for MPs. We need to change the way in which we see parenthood, because at the moment it's not working for either side of the equation - but it's women who are paying the price."
Ms Creasy argues that such attitudes cannot begin to change until the Government places more value on policies that matter to parents - including early years education and childcare.
And the gaps in opportunties that already existed have, she argues, become chasms thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, putting nurseries at risk of closure and forcing working parents - mainly mums - out of the market altogether.
"It's totally bizarre - we're in a position where you can go out on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and have a slap-up meal, and where we can do what we need to do to keep pubs open.
"But if you want to go back to work, and get childcare to enable you to do that - good luck to you," the former Labour deputy leadership candidate said.
"And the reality is, if you're an employer and have some difficult decisions to make during the coming months about redundancies and staff numbers, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that your members of staff with ‘strings attached’ are going to be the first ones to go.
"We are facing a potential tsunami of female unemployment unless the Government starts to value nurseries and early years education - and at the moment it just doesn't."
'WAITING ROOM FOR REDUNDANCY'
An Early Years Alliance report released this week found half of parents believe ministers have failed to provide enough childcare support post-lockdown.
And research by maternity discrimination charity Pregnant Then Screwed revealed 15% of mothers have been made redundant, or expect to be within the next six months.
Of those, 46% said a lack of childcare played a role in them losing their job, with 72% of mothers forced to work fewer hours because of childcare issues.
"The situation is only going to get worse, with women being forced to make a decision between the health of their unborn children and their jobs" - Joeli Brearley, Pregnant Then Screwed
The charity's founder and CEO Joeli Brearley told PoliticsHome: "Now Boris Johnson has told people to return to work, pregnant women are being told they have to come back.
"About half of the women we have spoken to have not had a risk assessment done, which is illegal, and they are vulnerable.
"The situation is only going to get worse, with women being forced to make a decision between the health of their unborn children and their jobs."
There is evidence some employers are using the Covid crisis to circumnavigate maternity protections, the charity says, with those with childcare responsibilities seen as "a burden".
"We expect to see another spike in the number of women losing their jobs from October, when the furlough scheme ends, as it's essentially a waiting room for redundancy," Ms Brearley added.
"We are talking decades of roll-back in terms of maternal employment. It takes a very long time to increase representation in the workplace, and once mothers are thrown out of the workforce it's so much more difficult to get them back in again.
"It's going to take a generation to repair the damage that has been done."
' STOP THINKING OF THIS AS A WOMEN'S ISSUE'
For Ms Creasy, it's not just about a culture change in Westminster, or even better representation.
She wants ministers to look to countries which have had better outcomes around the coronavirus pandemic, including New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just extended lockdown measures to contain a second wave of infections in its largest city.
"People need to stop thinking of this as a women's issue," Ms Creasy said.
"We can argue that bad decisions are made because there aren't women in the room. But we should be making better decisions and have women in the room.
"And people like me should be saying things should be done another way, because it's better. It's not like this country can say it was in a good place before Covid happened."
She added: "Surely men running the government care about their kids having the best start in life? Boris Johnson should be given the time to be a good dad, because I'm sure that's what he wants to be."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Nurseries, childminders and pre-schools have provided crucial support throughout the pandemic and are now more vital than ever as hardworking parents return to work.
"The number of children attending increased steadily throughout the pandemic - by the end of the summer term over 400,000 children were reported to be attending childcare, up from around 65,000 in mid-April."
The sector has received "significant financial support over the past months", the department said, "to provide stability and reassurance".
"We are continuing to provide extra security to nurseries and childminders that are open by ‘block-buying’ childcare places for the rest of this year at the level we would have funded before coronavirus – regardless of how many children are attending," the spokesperson added.
“Early years providers will benefit from a planned £3.6bn funding in 2020-21 for free early education and childcare places. From next year we will also be investing £1bn to create more, affordable wraparound and holiday childcare places.”