Bereavement (Leave and Pay)

– in the House of Commons at 3:18 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:21 pm, 29th June 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about leave and pay for employees of whom a close family member has died.

This Bill is designed to address the need for statutory paid bereavement leave for all employees on the sad loss of a close family member or partner. In recent years, I was privileged to be one of a number of MPs who worked cross-party to secure paid bereavement leave for parents on the loss of a child up to the age of 18. That effort showed this place at its best, and that work was finally enshrined in law as of April this year. As that work was going on, however, I said in this Chamber that, groundbreaking though that achievement was, it simply did not go far enough. That is why I am presenting this Bill.

According to research commissioned by the charity Sue Ryder, a third of employees who experienced a bereavement in the past year did not receive any communication from managers or the leadership of their organisation about bereavement. Only 32% of employees are aware of whether their employer has a bereavement policy, despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global health pandemic, with covid-19 linked to more than 152,000 deaths across the UK so far. Of those who felt well supported by their employer after experiencing a bereavement, 60% cited being allowed enough time off and not being pressured to return to work before they were ready as key actions that their employer took.

This Bill is timely, as the global health pandemic, which has touched us all in various ways, has sharply reminded us about the fragility of life and the profound and cruelly random nature of loss and bereavement. The line on employer discretion with regard to time off for employees following a profound event such as a bereavement is simply unfair. People deserve a level playing field. After all, death is the great leveller. Across the UK during this health pandemic, we have experienced bereavement on a distressing scale, and it has touched us all. Many of us have lost or feared losing a loved one. This has had a significant impact on our workforce, with 7.9 million people in employment—that is 24% of all employees—having experienced a bereavement in the past 12 months.

It is estimated that, for every death, six people experience intense grief. Taking into account the number of deaths in the UK each year and employment rates, we can say that bereavement causes nearly 2 million working people to suffer from intense grief each year. Such a profoundly life-changing experience brings with it potential long-term consequences for a person’s mental and physical health, and in some cases it can trigger mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, as well as being linked to an increased likelihood of heart attacks, diabetes and increased mortality.

The impacts of grief on society are huge and must no longer be left to the discretion of employers to manage in the workplace. We all know that many employers are supportive and understanding when an employee suffers a close bereavement, but we also know that many employers are not as supportive as they could be. Sometimes those who are grieving are pressured to return to work when they are still in the midst of the initial shock and trauma of loss. Without any statutory rights for employees to paid bereavement leave, the time and space to grieve for too many people is determined by the good will of their employer. That cannot be right and is counterproductive in a number of ways.

Typically, UK employers offer three to five days’ compassionate leave for the death of a close relative, but the discretionary nature of this leave means potentially that thousands of employees are unable to take leave without fearing that it would undermine their job security. In addition, we know that those in less well-paid jobs are far less likely to receive any discretionary time off with pay when they suffer a bereavement, or have any compassionate leave at all, which is grossly unfair.

We all need time and space to grieve without worrying about loss of pay or pressure to return to work too soon. Those on low pay are much less able to absorb the losses associated with unpaid leave and the immediate financial burden of bereavement. They are also at greater risk of being dismissed from work for taking time off, or of not being able to focus on their work due to the fog of grief. That increases the pressure and financial stress on employees who are trying to cope with the loss of a close family member. There is also some evidence to suggest that those in more challenged socio-economic circumstances are more likely to experience complicated or persistent grief, because they are likely to face more difficulties accessing appropriate services and information to help them to cope with their feelings of loss and grief.

As well as compassionate reasons for statutory bereavement leave, there are also economic reasons for this change. Research shows that grief experienced by employees who have lost a loved one costs the UK economy £23 billion per year and costs the Treasury nearly £8 billion per year. However, those costs could reach as high as £49 billion to the economy and £18 billion to the Treasury.

Most of the considerable economic impact arises from grieving employees being unable to work at their normal levels of productivity while they deal with the emotional, practical and financial aspects of coping with the loss of a close relative. That in turn leads to a cost to the Treasury in lost tax revenues and the fall-out of reliance on NHS support such as mental health and social care needs that can often follow. So although statutory bereavement leave for all those who lose a close family member will involve costs, this is actually preventive expenditure, as it will lead to a significant saving for the UK economy and the Treasury and a more productive and resilient workforce with reduced staff absence. Such support will mean less reliance on NHS services or perhaps even social security support in the case of those employees who drop out of the workforce altogether following a close bereavement. Of course, there is a cost attached to this, but there are also significant costs to not doing this. It is in our interests as a society, and it is in the Treasury’s interest, to take full cognisance of the profound debilitating effect that grief can have on those who lose a loved one. Statutory paid bereavement leave is a progressive and enlightened measure for any society to have in place.

Statutory bereavement leave for the loss of a close relative is something that people across the UK support. In fact, 62% of people across the UK believe that it is the right thing to do. The current arrangements, allowing leave for family emergencies, carry no statutory obligation that such leave should be paid, and it very often is not. We need to put bereavement leave for all who lose a close relative or partner on a statutory footing. That is what the Bill seeks to do, and that can be achieved if the political will is there to do it. Support for this measure certainly exists in wider society.

I urge the Government to study the proposals contained in the Bill carefully for the sake of the wellbeing of our workforce and our economy and support the progressive and compassionate measures that would give the profound effects of bereavement the statutory recognition they need and deserve. If they were to do so, as we emerge from this global health pandemic, that would send a signal that the Government have true empathy with all the losses suffered. We need to look after each other. This Parliament and this Government should take the opportunity to lead the way.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Patricia Gibson, Marion Fellows, Kirsten Oswald, Carol Monaghan, Brendan O’Hara, Joanna Cherry, Jonathan Edwards, Ian Mearns, Jim Shannon, Liz Saville Roberts, Bob Blackman and Jamie Stone present the Bill.

Patricia Gibson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 October, and to be printed (Bill 134).