Unfrozen: a hollow victory for new parents?

In this guest post, Abi Wood of NCT argues that the Government has to do more for new parents than simply exempt maternity and parental pay from its benefits freeze.

Politicians usually love to talk about families, and their commitment to supporting them. After all, who isn’t in favour of motherhood and apple pie? But, unusually, there wasn’t a single mention of working families in last week’s Queen’s Speech.

Rumours had been circulating about where the £12 billion of cuts in welfare spending would fall, causing concern that they could hit new parents by reducing benefits such as statutory maternity and paternity pay. So you might expect charities that support new parents, such as NCT, to be relieved by the news that, while the rates of most working-age benefits will indeed be frozen for two years from 2016-17 under the Full Employment & Welfare Benefits Bill, statutory maternity, paternity, shared parental leave and adoption pay will be exempted.

But this simply isn’t good enough. Parents taking time away from work to raise the next generation currently receive a shockingly low £138 per week in statutory parental pay. That is almost £100 less than they would receive if they were working full-time on the minimum wage. And anyone who’s spent time with a baby knows that looking after them takes more than 40 hours a week.

On top of this, maternity and paternity pay has been losing value for the last few years. Since 2013, annual increases have been capped at one per cent, rather than going up in line with inflation. Research commissioned by NCT from the think-tank IPPR revealed that, as a result of this cap on annual increases, parents receive £224 less over their maternity or paternity leave. The study also showed that this cut hits the poorest fifth of families hardest.

Decently paid parental leave is vital to enable new mothers to recover from birth, and to enable both mothers and fathers to take time away from the workplace to bond and care for their new baby. The struggle to make ends meet increases the strain on families and can force parents to return to work before they are ready. One new mother told us: “I’m currently on leave but only able to take 14 weeks off as statutory pay is just not enough for me to pay the bills. This has affected everything, particularly not being able to breastfeed for as long as I would have liked to.”

So, while the Government might be expecting a positive reaction from the family sector for exempting maternity and parental pay from the freeze, they’re going to have to do a lot better than that. NCT will be campaigning for changes to help new parents, and we hope that next year’s Queen’s Speech will have some genuinely good news for them.

Abi Wood is Public Affairs Manager at NCT.

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