Maternity mental health crisis linked to low SMP rates

The Petitions Committee debated a call for a higher statutory maternity rate yesterday.

Woman leans on a table looking depressed


Poor levels of statutory maternity and paternity pay combined with the ongoing cost of living crisis are leading to a mental health crisis and are storing up longer term problems for the future, a parliamentary debate heard yesterday.

The debate, led by Labour MP Catherine McKinnell, was triggered after a petition by mum Nicola Sheridan to increase statutory maternity pay [SMP] in line with the cost of living crisis gathered over 100,000 signatures. There were very few MPs present for the debate, which coincided with the vote on the the privileges committee’s report on Boris Johnson misleading Parliament. 

McKinnell spoke of the fear and anxiety induced by the cost of living crisis and said the current rate of inflation – 8.7% – only tells half the story because some items that are crucial for new parents have risen by considerably more than that.  The cost of formula milk, for instance, has risen on average by 24% over the past two years. Meanwhile, the cheapest brand of formula milk, Aldi’s Mamia, has risen by 45% in the same time period. The debate heard that the incidence of formula milk theft from supermarkets has risen in the last year and that some supermarkets have put security tags on the product due to parents’ desperation for the product. Other products like nappies have also increased steeply, said McKinnell. According to The Grocer’s Key Value Items Tracker, Baby-Dry Size 4 Nappies 44-pack, for instance, has risen an average of 42.1% across Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose. Yet statutory pay has only increased by 10.4% this year.

McKinnell said the rate of parental leave pay is too low at just £172.48 a week, which is 44% of the national living wage. Indeed the UK has the least generous paternity leave entitlement in Europe. That is before the added costs of becoming a parent are taken into account. McKinnell said that, when questioned about the low rate, a government representative had compared it with out of work benefits. “Mothers are not out of work,” said McKinnell. “Motherhood is work.”

Parental anxiety

McKinnell cited the Petitions Committee’s own survey which shows the impact anxiety about rates of pay is having. 89% of new parents have difficulty accessing basics like a pram; 93% think the support provided by the government is not adequate; and 92% have financial difficulties to afford social activities, including visiting friends and family. McKinnell said this is leaving new parents isolated at a time when they most need support. 97% of new parents are concerned about the impact all this anxiety is having on their mental health. McKinnell said that stress is being passed on to children with potentially long-lasting effects, with the poorest hit hardest and  children suffering a detrimental impact on their health, educational attainment and their life expectancy.

McKinnell also called specifically for an investigation into falling uptake of Healthy Start vouchers for the most needy parents since the government digitised the process. She added that the parental leave and pay system was too complex, with some parents, such as self-employed adoptive parents missing out on any parental pay. Many potential adopters say the cost of living crisis and low pay rates – or lack of pay – may affect their decision about whether to adopt. In addition she called on the government to monitor the long-term impact of SMP rates on socio-economic outcomes for children.

McKinnell’s speech also covered mums being pushed back to work early due to anxiety about their finances and those who are having to drop out as a result of high childcare fees, which can affect their earnings throughout life.

Summing up, she said the result of low parental pay rates will lead to fewer people having children, which poses an “existential threat” to the UK’s ageing society. “Doing nothing is not an option,” she said.

Other MPs brought up statistics on parents skipping meals and turning down heating with potential links to increased infection rates in babies as well as pregnancy discrimination and the need to review Shared Parental Leave.

Government response

Speaking for the Government, Mims Davies, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression, said that the UK had a “rightly generous” period of statutory maternity leave and that pay rates were reviewed annually in line with the consumer price index. She outlined current policy, but didn’t pledge any extra money or any review of SMP. Instead, she said employers could step in to help dads take more leave and could design jobs better to help women returners. Despite consistently low take-up of Shared Parental Leave [SPL] Davies said uptake was increasing, although she agreed it was not fast enough. She said an evaluation of the SPL scheme would be published “in due course”. 

While listing recent government announcements, such as on money for childcare places, she said she took on board the criticism about not comparing maternity pay to out of work benefits, although she treated it more as a communications issue than one about the level of pay. She added that she would look at the figures on Healthy Start vouchers as well as monitoring of long-term socio-economic outcomes. On forthcoming policies, she spoke about day one flexible working and maternity protections and also confirmed that statutory neonatal leave and pay would not come in until April 2025.

McKinnell said Davies’ response was “very general” and neglected the specific challenges facing parents in the current climate. Saying mothers are “crippled by stress”, she said statistics already show that maternal mental health is deteriorating. “Having a child is no longer a source of joy; it’s a source of stress and anxiety and that is unsustainable for our society,” she stated.

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