UK to change law that prevents Cabinet members taking maternity leave

4 February 2021, 18:08 | Updated: 4 February 2021, 18:23

Attorney General Suella Braverman is expecting her second child early this year
Attorney General Suella Braverman is expecting her second child early this year. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The UK will change an "outdated" law that forces female Cabinet members to resign in order to take time off after having a baby, Downing Street has said.

Maternity leave will become available to ministers following the law change, which will allow Attorney General Suella Braverman to take time off after having her second child.

The Tory frontbencher announced in November that she was pregnant and that she was due early this year.

It is believed she will become the most senior in Cabinet to have a baby while in office.

However, current rules would force Ms Braverman to resign if she wanted to take time off after the birth.

Next week, the government will bring forward legislation - to be debated in Parliament - that would provide mothers in the Cabinet with six months of paid leave.

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Labour MP Rachel Reeves called the legislation a small but significant step forward
Labour MP Rachel Reeves called the legislation a small but significant step forward. Picture: PA

Downing Street said the current "outdated" laws give female Cabinet ministers an unacceptable choice between either resigning from their role or not taking time off.

"The current rules are clearly outdated and need fixing, which is why we are introducing the Bill," the prime minister's official spokesman told a Westminster briefing.

"At the moment, women are offered the choice between either resigning from their position or taking time off to recover from childbirth, which is simply not acceptable in the modern times."

Asked whether the legislation would cover future female prime ministers, the spokesman said: "It would apply to anybody who holds a government position, whether that's a Cabinet minister, a junior minister or anybody who holds a government position to allow them to take six months' full paid maternity leave."

It is understood that Ms Braverman will be temporarily replaced as attorney general until her leave is over.

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Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said the legislation was a "small but significant step forward for women's rights in Parliament". However, she criticised it for lacking provisions for paternity, adoption or shared parental leave.

Ms Reeves said: "The attorney general will be the first Cabinet minister in UK history to take maternity leave with proper pay and cover.

"It is quite unbelievable that women Cabinet ministers throughout history have faced resignation or demotion when choosing to have children.

"Working women should not be forced to choose between having children and their career - whether that be a Cabinet minister or any other working mum.

"But this bill is already out of date, with no provisions for paternity, adoption or shared parental leave.

"Labour intends to hold the government to their word to work cross-party to introduce comprehensive legislation in the coming months to right this injustice."

However, Labour MP Justin Madders questioned the move based on Cabinet ministers being offered longer maternity pay than the general public.

He wrote on Twitter: "How can the Government legislate for Ministers to get 6 months maternity leave on full pay when everyone else gets only 6 weeks (and even then its not quite full pay)?"

Similarly, the Women's Equality Party accused the government of being "out of touch".

"It’s good to see Govt finally introducing mat leave, but offering Ministers six months on full pay while expecting most women to survive on a maternity allowance of £151.20, and failing to offer shared parental leave shows just how out of touch they are," it wrote on Twitter.

Helen Pankhurst - the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and who leads the Centenary Action Group, which campaigns on women’s representation and participation in politics - said it was “one rule for the cabinet and another for MPs, who still don’t have maternity rights or any formal parental leave.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined the proposed changes in a written statement.

He said: "Changes that I made to the ministerial code on becoming prime minister set out provision for junior ministers to be able to take maternity leave. However, this work-around relies on another minister taking on additional responsibilities and cannot be used for secretary of state or individual offices, such as the Law Officers or the Lord Chancellor.

"Until now, the limits on the number of salaries that can be paid overall, and for individual offices has left the government with limited flexibility to appoint cover should a minister want to go on maternity leave.

"In the absence of that flexibility, a senior minister wishing to go on maternity leave would likely need to resign from the government.

"The bill creates a designation of 'Minister on Leave' which provides for ministers to take maternity leave. This will also apply to certain opposition post holders too.

"Ministers on leave will remain part of the government and be able to be briefed on matters and kept in touch with work, but will not be responsible for exercising the functions of the office from which they are on leave."