Government risks failing babies and parents struggling to cope during Covid
New parent Bethany told us that she found remote health visits “unhelpful”, and remote parent and baby classes difficult for her baby to engage with – leaving her with the “continuous heartache of not having support”.
The work of the Petitions Committee has never been more important. With many avenues to lobby MPs being restricted, petitions have played a vital role in people expressing their views and getting things that wouldn’t otherwise have been debated onto the Parliamentary agenda.
Coronavirus has of course been a major concern for people petitioning Parliament. In the first twelve months of the pandemic, more than 14.3 million people signed a petition – more than double the equivalent figure for the 2017-19 Parliament. Six of the ten most popular petitions in this Parliament have related to Covid-19.
Last year, a petition calling for an extension to maternity leave and pay during the pandemic received more than 238,000 signatures. It put the spotlight on the pandemic’s impact on new parents – something that had not been given the attention it deserved – and the Petitions Committee sought to identify the key issues and make recommendations.
We called on the government to extend paid parental leave to allow new parents more time to access the support that wasn’t available during the first lockdown. We also recommended targeted funding for catch-up on vital health and development support, and an urgent short-term review of early years provision during the pandemic, and a longer-term independent review of childcare provision.
Unfortunately, the government rejected almost all our recommendations. One year on, the Committee this week held a review session.
Access to baby and toddler groups has been significantly affected and have lacked vital support
We heard that anomalies remain in some new parents’ eligibility for parental leave and pay based on their circumstances. Petitioner Bethany highlighted her experience and stated the government “don’t ever think about mothers, or maternity leave or returning to work”.
Despite our recommendations, the government has provided no ‘catch-up’ funding for health visiting and other support services for new parents. These services are crucial to support parents’ physical and mental health, and the development of their babies.
More than 8,700 new parents and childcare providers shared their experience on the ongoing impact of the pandemic with us in a survey before the session. They told us access to baby and toddler groups has been significantly affected and that they have lacked vital support, particularly health visits, which have often happened only virtually, if at all.
New parent Bethany told us that she found remote health visits “unhelpful” for her needs, and remote parent and baby classes difficult for her baby to engage with – leaving her with the “continuous heartache of not having support”.
Emily Tredget, co-founder of Happity, told us that providers of baby and toddler classes had found “a lot of children coming in aren't as developed as they're expected to be, particularly socially. They're hiding behind mum... not able to get through the whole class”.
Our report recommended extending maternity redundancy protections to six months after a new mother returns to work, and a legal right to paid leave for parents of babies requiring neonatal care.
Although the government committed to introducing these measures via an Employment Bill, this was notably absent from the Queen’s Speech. I put this case directly to the Prime Minister on behalf of petitioners recently and I was disappointed that he was unable to say when legislation would be brought forward.
The lack of action to address these issues, combined with prolonged restrictions, led petitioners, campaign groups and specialists to describe the government as having a “baby blind spot”, and pregnant women and new mums being “a forgotten cohort”. The potential long-term impacts of this are really concerning.
There are steps the government can take now to minimise the long-term impact of the pandemic on new parents and their children – including the actions recommended in our Committee’s report last July that are still very much needed. Our Committee will continue to represent the voices of petitioners and challenge the government to act. Failure to do so could be costing new parents, their babies and wider society for years to come.
Catherine McKinnell is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North.
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