Labour will back measures allowing six-month maternity leave for cabinet ministers through a bill rushed through parliament later on Thursday but will demand a commitment to tackle maternity protections for women during the pandemic as a price for its support.
The legislation has provoked a backlash among MPs and campaigners because it will offer six months’ paid leave only to ministers – not backbenchers – and will give ministers far more generous rights than the general public.
The bill will speed through parliament in a day to ensure provision is in place for the attorney general, Suella Braverman, who is expected to give birth within weeks.
Labour will support the ministerial and other maternity allowances bill but sources said there would be a number of concessions from the minister Penny Mordaunt pledging immediate action on maternity discrimination.
The government committed in 2019 to strengthening protections for pregnant women in the employment bill, on which there has been little progress. It comes amid concerns that pregnant women have been disproportionately selected for redundancy during the pandemic. Others were unlawfully placed on sick pay when pregnant women were advised to shield, affecting their maternity entitlement.
The bill promises to extend redundancy protection to pregnant employees and maternity returners and introduce leave for neonatal care.
Cat Smith MP, Labour’s 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.”
The government hopes to use parliamentary procedure to avoid amendments on the bill, a move expected to be backed by Labour.
Mordaunt is understood to have told concerned MPs that there is not enough time before Braverman’s due date to pass more complex arrangements and the government has threatened it will pull the bill entirely if opposition MPs try to amend it.
However, Stella Creasy, the senior Labour MP who is also in the early stages of pregnancy, is threatening to take the government to court for discrimination for giving better rights to ministers than MPs.
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.
A coalition of a dozen women’s and charitable organisations, led by the Centenary Action Group, which campaigns on women’s representation and participation in politics, wrote to the government warning that if the bill passed without any further reforms, it would “set a precedent of a two-tier system of maternity and paternity rights”.
The letter added that while it was “welcome” that government ministers would get six months’ maternity leave on full pay, “statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance is just £151.20 per week, equivalent to about half of the national minimum wage”.