I asked about maternity leave for Ministers in 2001 and was told it was a matter for the Queen, says Yorkshire MP Yvette Cooper

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A Yorkshire MP and former Labour Minister has revealed how a senior colleague told her it was "a matter for the Queen" when she asked to take maternity leave from government two decades ago.

Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper told a Commons debate that she was the first junior minister to take maternity leave 20 years ago while serving in Tony Blair's government.

And she said it was "quite astonishing that it has taken two decades for a cabinet minister to be able to do the same" as Ministers rushed through a Bill to allow Attorney General Suella Braverman to take six months' maternity leave.

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Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette CooperNormanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper
Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper

Current laws mean the Conservative Ministers would have to resign if she wanted to take time off with her baby.

But Labour MP Stella Creasy claims the Government's failure to extend the right beyond ministers to backbench MPs was akin to making maternity leave "a benefit like a company car".

The Walthamstow MP is threatening to bring legal action against the Government over the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill over concerns it breaches human rights law.

Ms Cooper, who served in a number of ministerial roles under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown between 1999 and 2010, said: "We've had three male prime ministers and a chancellor that have had new babies in recent years but no women in the cabinet until now."

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And she described the new legislation as a "step forward" but said the "short-term, reactive approach" being taken shows that "maternity arrangements still aren't being taken seriously enough" in Government.

She said: "So I welcome this legislation but it is limited. Even in government it doesn't provide for fathers to do their bit in the early months or cover adoption leave.

"It doesn't cover Parliamentary issues and perhaps really importantly it doesn't cover councillors, where the Fawcett Society say that just seven per cent of councils have a maternity policy in place.

"And of course importantly it does not deal with the ongoing and unfair discrimination that still happens in practice against women in so many work places across the country because the systems for protecting maternity rights are still too weak."

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Ms Cooper is the wife of fellow Labour Cabinet Minister Ed Balls and the couple have two daughters and one son.

She said: "When I needed to take maternity leave as a public health Minister in 2001 I asked the Health Secretary what I should do. He didn't know, he said ask the Prime Minister. He didn't know.

"He said to ask the Cabinet Secretary, he had no idea and said that as Ministers are Crown appointments it was really a matter for the Queen but nobody thought we should be asking her Majesty.

"We then tried to work something out similar to civil service arrangements. We didn't get it all right.

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"A lack of proper cover arrangements caused difficulty and while the Health department was really supportive that informal approach proved inadequate a few years later when I took maternity leave again and the Communities department was not as supportive and I had to struggle to get basic arrangements in place.

"When we were drawing up these arrangements nobody had thought about it before. That was bad enough 20 years ago but we have no excuse for a short term reactive approach now."

Shadow Cabinet Office minister and Leeds MP Rachel Reeves said: "I recall in 2015 when I was shadow work and pensions secretary and expecting my second child, a (Conservative MP) suggested that as an expectant mum I shouldn't be appointed to the cabinet if Labour were to win the general election as I wouldn't be able to manage doing two things at once.

"I hope he has since revised his opinions and I am pleased this Bill today will allow cabinet ministers for the first time to have paid time off after the birth of a child."

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Ms Reeves said she hoped the legislation would trigger the Government to take action to deal with workers' rights and women's rights more generally."

The Bill, which Labour does not oppose, will give the Prime Minister the ability to designate the minister wishing to take maternity leave as a "minister on leave".

The Prime Minister will then have the power to appoint someone else to the role, without exceeding the legal limits on the number of ministers.

Announcing the plans last week to allow Ms Braverman to take maternity leave, Boris Johnson told MPs it "is not acceptable in modern times" to expect someone to have to take leave or resign from office to recover from childbirth or to care for a newborn.

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