Government benefit cuts are pushing pregnant women and new parents into worsening poverty, says a damning new report.
The report – Valuing families? – from the charity Maternity Action, who provide free advice to parents about welfare benefits and healthcare, found that government welfare cuts are “exacerbating the high rate of poverty among new families”.
Since coming to office in 2010, the Tory-led coalition government has made a number of cuts to benefits and payments available to pregnant women and children. This includes freezing and means-testing Child Benefit; removing the baby element, and capping the annual up-rating of Statutory Maternity (and Paternity) Pay and Maternity Allowance.
The government has also reduced the income cut-off for the family element of Child Tax Credit, removed Sure Start Maternity Grants for all but a family’s first child and abolished both the Child Trust Fund and Health in Pregnancy Grant.
Maternity Action says cuts to welfare benefits and other payments available to families, including for working parents, are “contributing to the growth in personal debt” at a time when the cost of living has increased significantly.
Financial stress can lead to poor mental health among parents and this is linked to potential behavioural difficulties in children, says Maternity Action. The report says “women affected by poverty are less likely to have good nutrition during pregnancy, which contributes to the high rates of low birth weight in the UK”.
The report draws attention to the 2010 Marmot Review, which recommended early intervention to support families on both low and middle-incomes experiencing poor health, as a result of a squeeze on incomes.
Cuts in maternity benefits are pushing women to return to work after maternity sooner than they would like, while the take-up of paternity leave among fathers is affected by family incomes, reducing the likelihood of shared parenting. Maternity Action say this “entrenches the division of caring responsibilities and halts progress in reducing the gender pay gap”.
The charity says reducing maternity benefits is “at odds with evidence-based strategies to address health inequalities”, adding “poverty and poor health are inextricably linked and children born to parents living in poverty are more likely to present with developmental and social problems later in life”.
The report said as many as 60,000 women are forced to leave their jobs every year, because of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. The introduction of employment tribunal fees means that some women face a £1,200 barrier to justice.
More than 600 Sure Start services have closed their doors since Prime Minister David Cameron and his government took office in 2010, reducing the number of available sources of advice and support for new parents.
Maternity Action has called on the government to increase maternity benefits and treat Maternity Allowance as ‘earnings from employment’, within the new Universal Credit system.
The charity is also calling on the government to increase the National Minimum Wage and:
- Assist low to medium income families with the costs of each new baby, by reinstating the Sure Start Maternity Grant for second and subsequent children.
- Provide support for low-income women during pregnancy to ensure a healthy diet, by increasing Healthy Start payments by 14.5% (the increase in the cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages since the benefit was last up-rated in 2010).
- Review access to maternity benefits for pregnant women and new mothers who do not have indefinite leave to remain and for EEA nationals, with the aim of reducing poverty amongst migrant families residing in the UK. This should take into account the impact of extending from two years to five years the period of residency in the UK required for migrants with spouse/partner/fiancé(e) visas to apply for indefinite leave to remain, and restrictions on access to benefits by EEA nationals.
- Take immediate steps to reduce the high rate of pregnancy discrimination to enable pregnant women and new parents to retain their jobs and have the confidence to exercise their maternity and parental rights at work.