[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019-21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, HC 526, and the Government response, HC 770 First Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2021-22, Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, HC 479, and the Government response, HC 1132 e-petition 606011, Introduce neonatal leave and pay entitlement immediately.]
After such a smooth start, it is good to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. It provides me with an opportunity to thank you for and congratulate you on your flawless oversight and running of the private Members’ Bill ballot. Indeed, you showed impeccable taste even when picking numbers out of the hat. Seriously, however, you can be very pleased with the range of Bills before Parliament today.
I also welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Jane Hunt, to her place and wish her well. I was grateful to meet her predecessor and his officials to discuss the Bill and work together on it, and I appreciate the new Minister having ensured that that work can continue in the week since her appointment. I hope that she is as enthusiastic about this Bill as both her predecessor and I am—I am sure she will be and, from our first discussions, I know that she definitely is.
We should all be enthusiastic about this brilliant Bill, which I know will make such a huge difference to tens of thousands of families each and every year. That is because it paves the way for the introduction of neonatal care leave and pay. I am grateful to all the hon. Members in the Chamber for being here to consider this proposal and, I very much hope, to support it. We will never be able to get rid of the stress, anxiety, doubts, questions and trauma that so many families experience when their baby is in neonatal care, but what we can and must do is help to relieve some of the practical and financial challenges that accompany that experience.
I am delighted to see the Bill come to the Floor of the House, and I know that other hon. Members have sought to bring it previously and have done a huge amount of work in this area. I hope that the Government put their full weight behind it. My constituent Coady Dorman does a lot of work with Bliss, as my hon. Friend will know. She had a premature son, Matthew. He is now thriving, but she spoke about the months she spent going to see him in neonatal care and how different the experience was, and how different maternity leave was after that. She told of the stress and strain of having to worry about money all during that time. My hon. Friend’s Bill will, we hope, take away some of that stress.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Hearing about those experiences is precisely what has prompted my bringing this Bill forward today. Campaigns groups such as Bliss and The Smallest Things, which I will come to in a moment, have really driven this forward. As she alluded to, there are Members in the Chamber today with personal experience of having a baby in neonatal care, which makes them the best advocates for this cause so I am grateful for their participation. Many of them, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), and Luke Hall, have been passionate and articulate campaigners for reform for a considerable time.
I am pleased to say that we are joined in the Gallery today by people from Bliss and The Smallest Things, representing families who have direct experience of the challenges around neonatal care; I am immensely grateful to them and so many other organisations and individuals for their help and support in taking this Bill forward and for the campaign they have been driving since long before I was elected to this place. I hope that the families with lived experience of neonatal care who are watching today will be satisfied that we have represented the issues they have faced, and are facing now, with the careful consideration and compassion they deserve.
The Office for National Statistics reports that an estimated 100,000 babies every year across the UK are admitted to neonatal care following their birth. Many of those babies spend prolonged periods of time on a neonatal care unit in a hospital as a result of being born prematurely or with other health conditions. That is, of course, an incredibly worrying and stressful time for parents, and their extended families. All our hearts go out to everyone who has found themselves in that position. Parents will naturally want to be able to focus their attention simply on getting through that period, supporting each other and their newborn. There is an emotional imperative to be with their babies, but there is also a practical one: those vulnerable, little children need their parents, and those parents need to be with their wee ones. As the charity Bliss has highlighted,
“parental presence on a neonatal unit is essential. Babies have the best developmental outcomes when their parents can deliver hands-on care.”
However, some families struggle to do that while keeping in employment and earning a living. Fathers get two weeks of statutory paternity leave. That is good, but when those two weeks run out, they must be called back to work while their baby is still in hospital. How can any parent be expected to focus at work while their sick baby is undergoing life-saving, life-changing neonatal care?
When babies have an extended stay in hospital at the start of their life, mothers report that 39 weeks of paid maternity leave does not give them enough time. That gets used up during the neonatal care and they do not feel that they have enough time at home with their baby before they need to go back to work. Some mothers may choose to leave work as a result. Indeed, research by The Smallest Things shows that one in 10 mothers were not able to return to work due to the ongoing needs of their babies who had required neonatal care.
That research also highlights two incredibly concerning statistics, which are perhaps unsurprising given the emotional trauma of a baby being born premature or sick. The charity reports that 77% of parents said they experienced anxiety after neonatal care, and that nearly a quarter had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after neonatal intensive care. In short, The Smallest Things concludes that we need to strengthen the statutory rights and support offered to these parents because that
“would give parents the emotional and financial support needed at a time of great stress and trauma – in turn leading to better postnatal health, a more positive return to work and better outcomes for children born prematurely.”
I commend my hon. Friend for bringing forward this really important Bill. I got in a taxi the other day that was driven by one of his constituents who said that his baby had spent nearly three months in hospital having been born prematurely. His employer was not at all helpful, so he had to go back to work after his two weeks’ paternity leave. It was incredibly stressful—everything my hon. Friend is talking about rings really true—and he ended up having to leave that employment because being with his wife and baby was far more important. That is why the Bill is so important for families.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are employers out there who already provide this support for their employees, and they are to be commended. Unfortunately, though, as we have heard, there are too many who do not. Sometimes fathers are forced to use sick pay for extended periods, which is far from ideal, and on other occasions, as we have just heard, people are forced back to work.
At an incredibly distressing time when these families need each other the most, we should be doing what we can to support them and allow them to spend that precious and vital time with their babies. As Bliss has highlighted, the main reason why parents on maternity leave return to work before they are ready, and why parents taking paternity leave return to work while their baby is still in neonatal care, is financial pressure.
Bliss estimates that the additional cost of a neonatal stay is around £250 per week by the time we factor in travel costs, buying food and drink at the hospital, extra childcare, and even accommodation costs if the hospital is far from home. That is obviously a significant financial burden, and I am very glad that it was recognised by the Scottish Government when they established the neonatal expenses fund—now the young patients family fund—in 2018.
The Bill will create a new statutory leave and pay entitlement for the parents of babies receiving neonatal care. Employed parents who find themselves in this immensely challenging situation in the future will know that, as a minimum, they are entitled to time off work to care for their babies, and that they will not suffer any repercussions as a result. Crucially, the Bill will allow parents to have protected time off work to care for their children at such a difficult time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the Bill forward. I want to express how I much I support what he is trying to do. As somebody who was employed when my wife, who is also a constituent of Broxtowe, had our twin children, who were six weeks premature and one of whom spent three weeks in neonatal care, I strongly support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill.
As I said, the best arguments come from those with direct experience—they are the most powerful advocates—so I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman for staying behind this morning and lending his support.
As I said in response to the intervention from my hon. Friend Carol Monaghan, there are some brilliant, supportive and flexible employers out there, such as those who are signed up to The Smallest Things’ “Employer with Heart” charter. I take this opportunity to commend them and ask them to continue to support their employees when these circumstances occur. However, we all know that there are employers who are not as forward thinking—some cannot afford to be—and it is those employers, and the parents who work for them, that we will need particularly to consider when introducing the provisions of the Bill. In short, that is why neonatal care, leave and pay entitlement is not just desirable, but essential to protect and support parents at this very difficult time.
Let me explain to the House in a bit more detail what the Bill and the powers it sets up are designed to achieve. Much of the framework and terminology borrows from other related statutory rights ensuring consistency, compatibility and, hopefully, ease of implementation. I am grateful to parliamentary counsel for their work in drafting the Bill to reflect the important policy goals. Neonatal care, leave and pay will apply to parents of babies who are admitted into hospital at the age of up to 28 days and who have a continuous stay in hospital or in other agreed care settings of seven full days or more. It is intended that eligible parents will be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave on top of their other parental entitlements, such as maternity or paternity leave. Neonatal care leave will be a day one right—available to an employee from their first day in a new job. Statutory neonatal care pay, like other family-related pay rights, would be available to those employees who meet continuity of service and a minimum earning test.
Parents will have an entitlement to up to 12 weeks of neonatal care leave—one week for every week that the child spends in neonatal care. That leave will be protected, and a person should not suffer any form of detriment due to taking that leave. As I have said, statutory neonatal care pay will be available to employees who meet continuity of service and minimum earnings tests, and it will be paid at the statutory rate, which is currently £156.66 or 90% of the employee’s average wages, whichever is lower, and that should be uprated in line with increases to statutory payments. That mirrors the existing family leave in pay provisions such as paternity, shared parental, adoption and maternity pay after the first six weeks. Employers will be able to reclaim spending on neonatal pay in a manner similar to other statutory payments.
It is expected that some parents, such as fathers who have only two weeks of paternity leave, may want to take their neonatal leave while their child is still in neonatal care. However, once maternity leave commences, a mother cannot stop it to take neonatal care leave, or she will lose her remaining maternity leave rights. Neonatal care leave will therefore be flexible so that mothers can add it to the end of their maternity leave and other forms of parental leave that they may be entitled to. That flexibility allows an employee to take the leave at a time that best suits them when their child is receiving or has received neonatal care. With that in mind, the Bill provides for the window of time within which neonatal care leave can be taken to be set out in regulations. That will be a minimum of 68 weeks following the child’s birth, ensuring that mothers and fathers have sufficient time to take their neonatal care leave alongside other leave rights that they may be entitled to, rather than having to lose out on any such entitlements.
I do not aim to persuade Members that every single aspect of the design of the scheme is perfect—of course there are arguments that it might not be. There are debates to be had about statutory rights and entitlements and support for the self-employed or workers who are not technically employees. We can debate whether neonatal pay, like leave, should be a day one right. Some might ask whether we should raise levels of statutory entitlements. While 12 weeks of leave and pay will cover the overwhelming majority of cases, others might ask if we can go further.
First, it is important to remember that the Bill and the regulations will set out minimum standards for neonatal leave and pay. Employers can and do already go beyond them, and we encourage them to continue to do that. In any event, while those are all fair questions and issues, they are for another day and relate to statutory rights more generally, not the principle behind introducing this new right.
Today, I hope we will take a significant step forward in expanding the range of statutory family rights to leave and pay—a step that will make a big difference to tens of thousands of families every year for generations to come. There is overwhelming support for this change from families, trade unions, health professionals and employers, and Members of Parliament from all corners of the House support it, too. Indeed, it is a rare and remarkable Bill that will at one and the same time deliver on a specific manifesto commitment of the Conservative party and the SNP.
No more should we be leaving parents to use up maternity and paternity leave travelling great distances to a neonatal ward. There should be no more forcing fathers back to work after two weeks with their newborn still on a ventilator, separating families at a crucial time, no more leaving mum to cope on a neonatal ward facing significant decisions alone and no more depriving babies in neonatal units of the support of both their parents. There should be no more making parents choose unnecessarily between being with their newborn baby in hospital and being able to secure an income through work. This Bill will help thousands of parents each year to spend more precious time with their premature and sick babies, so we need this Bill to succeed for them.
To conclude, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House share my desire to ensure that the Bill succeeds. Collectively, we have an opportunity to effect real change. It is our duty to ensure that those who will have to rely on such provision are fully able to do so.
I am genuinely delighted to rise to support the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill. For me, as for other hon. Members and many families around the country, this is much more consequential than any political debate happening this week that might be receiving more attention. I could not be happier that we are here at Second Reading.
I sincerely thank Stuart C. McDonald for bringing forward the Bill and for introducing it in the way that he did. He spoke eloquently about some of the challenges facing parents, he outlined why the Bill is important, and he took us through some of its important elements. I know that he understands how important it is to many people. I also thank David Linden for championing the Bill as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies, and for helping us ensure that it got to Second Reading today.
Every year in the UK, tens of thousands of babies receive neonatal care. For the families of those babies, as we have heard, that can be life-changing. Neonatal care is the type of care that a child receives in hospital if they are born premature, at full term but with a condition or illness that needs medical attention, or with a particularly low birth weight. Rather than the families bringing their child home shortly after birth, the child is admitted to a specialist neonatal intensive care unit to receive the support that ensures that they have the best possible chance of survival—in some cases—and of quality of life.
There is a huge wealth of evidence that suggests that the more time that a parent spends with their child in NICU from as early as possible, the better their chances and outcomes. Crucially, this Bill will allow parents to take additional time off work when their child is in neonatal intensive care to ensure that they are no longer in the ridiculous and impossible position of having to choose between keeping their job or spending time with their child.
Once the Bill is enacted, neonatal leave and pay will be available to employees whose child spends more than one week on a NICU. It will provide up to 12 weeks’ paid leave for qualifying parents. Currently, parents of a child in neonatal care rely on the existing statutory requirements that we have already heard about so they can be off work with their child in hospital, which means that parents spend a proportion of their maternity or paternity leave with their child in hospital.
Babies who have spent a long time in hospital after birth are, of course, at an earlier stage in their development when their parent has to go back to work compared with their peers. That is particularly challenging for lots of mothers who want to spend that extra time at home with their child and for fathers and non-child-bearing parents who often go back to work when their child is still in hospital, sometimes still on ventilation and being fed through a tube. It is completely unacceptable. All that has only ever led in one direction: reduced parental involvement, huge pressure on families and a reduced opportunity for bonding at an early stage.
I am grateful to Stuart C. McDonald for bringing this important Bill to the House. It has such great support. My hon. Friend touches on an important point. My constituent got in touch about her experience when her child was in neonatal care. Her husband forwent his parental leave until after the baby came out of hospital, so that he could spend time with the baby at home. Those missing weeks really make a difference to the bonding and matter to the parents and the child, so I welcome the Bill.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because it only leads in one direction—parents being with their children less in hospital—and the main reason for that is simply that parents cannot afford to take the time off work. That is happening to the families of premature children every single day up and down the country.
For me, as for many other families and hon. Members present, this is personal. In my family’s case, I remember my wife being admitted to hospital 22 weeks into her pregnancy. She was told that she could give birth at any time and that she would have to stay in hospital for the duration of her pregnancy. We had to wait day by day hoping that she would stay in hospital and the pregnancy would continue.
I remember hoping that the late-night phone calls from the hospital at 2 o’clock in the morning were bringing good news rather than bad. I remember the incredible day that he was born at just 28 weeks. He weighed 2.4 lb—he was absolutely tiny—and stayed in NICU for 72 of the longest days I could possibly describe before coming home. It is important to say this, because, for so many families of premature children, this is a very, very long journey. It does not start the day the child is born. It does not start the first day or the eighth day; it starts often months beforehand. There is a huge mental toll, as we have heard already, on parents when they are in NICU with their child. We know that the mental health of the majority of parents suffers. Of course it does.
Parents, whatever the circumstances, want to be with their children when they are born. That is completely natural, but when your child is so small and so vulnerable, it is painful to be apart from them. You just want to be there. Too many parents have to sit with their children while they are in incubation worrying about whether they can afford to pay the bus fare home. We cannot allow that to continue and this Bill will play an important part in stopping that happening.
People were delighted when numerous parties made the manifesto commitment to introduce neonatal leave and pay. I would have loved this to be delivered two years ago through a Government Bill, but—I have to be honest—that does not matter to me today. All that matters is that the Government embrace this as the opportunity to deliver this important commitment that we have made with open arms.
On the Bill itself, I want to thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and the Government for the way they have worked with us so far on this. I also thank the previous Minister, Paul Scully, who gave so much time to talk to us about finding a vehicle to introduce this. I know that the new Minister will take up the cause with equal vigour.
I want to raise a couple of points. The first is the timing of the introduction of the Bill. The normal practice would be for it to be introduced at the start of a new financial year. Back in March 2020 in the Budget, the Government committed to introduce the measure in the 2023-24 financial year and set the funding aside for it. To meet that, in what is now an incredibly challenging timescale, the Bill needs to pass through Parliament quickly. Will the Minister talk in her wind-up about the proposed introduction date and whether we can still meet the 2023 target? I believe that there is precedent for Bills getting done quickly. It is important because, if we introduce the measure in 2024 rather than 2023, we will needlessly leave thousands more parents in the situation for a year longer than is necessary.
We had conversations with the previous Minister for quite a long time about making sure that the background work continued while we tried to find a vehicle to deliver the measure. In December last year, the Minister assured me that the Department was working with HMRC and drafting the guidance for businesses, making sure that HMRC’s IT systems were ready and everything else. Will the Minister update us on how that work is progressing and whether the guidance will be ready on time?
My second point is perhaps more technical and more for Committee. I saw that the qualifying period was seven days, which was completely expected, but that the seven days start the day after birth. That is a point that we can discuss later during the passage of the Bill; it seems a tiny bit at odds with some of the ways in which the neonatal care days are recorded, certainly in England—I am not sure about other parts of the UK.
Delivering neonatal leave and pay will help thousands of babies born needing neonatal care to benefit from their parents being where they should be—by their side providing the hands-on care that is so vital. It will deliver support for thousands of parents who need it during the most difficult days of their lives. I am hugely grateful to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for choosing this Bill and delivering it the way that he did and to the Government for backing it. The Bill is uncontroversial and has cross-party support. We have waited for it for a long time. I am hugely proud to be here to support its passage. It will help to deliver on our promise to so many families.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald. When I told him that he had come top of the private Member’s Bills ballot, he thought that I was just someone who was interested, notwithstanding what happened earlier. It was actually because I was so keen to see this Bill come forward. This is a Bill that I sought to introduce in 2018 via the ten-minute rule. It is a testament to how generous and warm my hon. Friend is that he has been presented with this opportunity by winning the parliamentary lottery. Many of us would like to see the private Member’s Bill process reformed, but I am incredibly grateful to him and will be forever in his debt that he has taken the Bill on.
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the former Minister, Paul Scully. He and I have been discussing and meeting about this issue. I have questioned him on the Floor of the House for a very long time about it. It became clear that, in the absence of an employment Bill, the most sensible way of dealing with it, particularly given the cross-party support we have, was to decouple it and take this as a stand-alone Bill. I am glad we are going down that route.
I would like to pay tribute to and recognise a few other people, particularly Catriona Ogilvy from The Smallest Things, and Josie Anderson and Beth McCleverty from Bliss. I have been working with them for years on this, and the fact that we are finally seeing the Bill go through the House is a point of enormous pride. It is the culmination of many years of work by not just MPs, which I will come to in a moment, but, most importantly, parents whose children are born premature or sick.
This is actually politics at its best. It is no secret that I am not a fan of this place, and I do everything every single day to try to get out of here, but if the House will indulge me for one moment, this is probably one of the best moments we have had here, because we are seeing politicians coming together, putting party politics aside and using their personal experience.
One of the reasons the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies works so well is that the officers of that group all have one thing in common. It is not the fact that they are Members of Parliament; it is that they are the parents of premature and sick-born babies. I want to thank the hon. Members for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) and for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), my hon. Friend Gavin Newlands, and the hon. Members for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who have come together to put party politics and indeed constitutional politics aside to ensure that we do deliver for those families.
This Bill is not particularly controversial. It is a relatively short Bill and the budget line only commits to about £15 million, as the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate said, in the 2023 Budget, but it will have a massive impact on the families of those 90,000 to 100,000 babies who every year are born in the UK and spend time in neonatal care.
As the House will recall, both of my children—Isaac and Jessica—were born premature. In Isaac’s case, we only had about 14 weeks from finding out that he was going to arrive to his coming into the world. I still remember that moment when it moved to an emergency caesarean and being whipped away to a neonatal intensive care unit, and the real worry going through that time. In both cases—for both my children—my parental leave was well up by the time we got out of hospital. In the case of my daughter Jessica, who is now three years old, she spent roughly the first year of her life on oxygen and many weeks and months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
The hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate hit the nail on the head when he talked about the mental health impact that this has on parents. I still remember vividly, and will until my dying day, watching my daughter turn blue in the incubator, with noises, alarms and lights all going off and neonatal nurses rushing in to resuscitate her. The idea that we as legislators would expect our constituents to be at work when that is happening or, worse still, to do a shift after that is something we are putting right today, because that is a historical wrong.
There is also the point that employers will not get the best out of their employees when they are sitting at work and staring into space, worrying whether or not their child is going to make it through the day. They are also not going to be in a good space when they realise that mum is back in the neonatal intensive care ward and doctors are coming round to talk about the massive consequential decisions that families have to take, while the dad, or another parent perhaps, is sitting in front of a computer in the office. That is why this is so important.
There are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has said, good employers out there already: Sony Music, Waltham Forest Council, South Ayrshire Council all have innovative policies in place. Interestingly, we have a big debate in this House about proxy voting. As far as I understand it, proxy voting still does not have provision for neonatal care leave. Although there will be a period before we can get Royal Assent, this House could get its own house in order by ensuring that we have some form of neonatal leave immediately with proxy voting.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work he has done over many years on this issue. My own chief of staff, Stephanie, had her twin girls—Abi and Jessica—during the deepest, darkest lockdown of the winter of 2020. She had the pressure of having two premature babies, being quite ill and having to go in and out of the neonatal unit. So much of what he says rings true, and I hope I did what I could as an employer, but I felt that my hands were tied by the rules of this place. I remember trying to give her all the support I could, but her partner worked offshore and had to go back offshore; he could not even be in the same place as her after that. Does my hon. Friend agree that everything he says and everything this Bill brings forward will be so important to our constituents, our staff and staff the length and breadth of the country? It should not be left up to individual businesses to make policies; this needs to be in legislation.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As well as reforming some of the issues around proxy voting in this place, which I accept impacts only a small amount of us, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which is responsible for setting many of the policies and conditions on how Members of the House employ staff, could do a lot more not just on guidance but to reform the rules.
There are a number of good employers out there—I have mentioned them already—but one thing we saw as a result of the P&O scandal is that, sadly, far too many employers are too tempted to gild the lily, cut corners and undercut their staff. I am conscious that there is cross-party consensus this morning, but I will not depart from the belief that the sooner we have an employment Bill before the House, the better so we could try to deal with some of the other issues, such as the excellent proposition on miscarriage leave made by my hon. Friend Angela Crawley. It is important that the Minister considers how we could bring forward an employment Bill. However, ultimately, this Bill will end the lottery that far too many employees across these islands have to deal with. I agree with the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate about the need to expedite the Bill. I still have a concern that, although the Bill will be read a Second time today, we should get it into Committee as soon as possible, and to the Lords. My preference would be to do all stages on the Floor of the House. There is precedent for that. Given the immense cross-party agreement on this, we could get the Bill through in a couple of hours.
I put a direct challenge to whoever the two final candidates are for Prime Minister. I understand that whoever becomes Prime Minister will be enormously tempted to call a snap election. The danger with doing that is that the House would prorogue and the Bill would not receive Royal Assent. I would like a commitment from both candidates that they will not play fast and loose with that.
There are many more things that we can do to try to support families who have had premature or sick babies. We need to look at the neonatal workforce. That is a ticking time bomb that will go off in about 10 years’ time. We need to look at the school admissions code, certainly in England, and look across the UK at the poor hospital accommodation for parents. Far too many parents have to stay in hotels well off site. That is particularly challenging for mothers who are breastfeeding and there are all sorts of other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East referred to the neonatal expenses fund that we have in Scotland. We are incredibly lucky to have that, but it is not available to our friends in other parts of these islands.
Finally, we will have to look at the postcode lottery and the desert of counselling that exists across health boards and NHS trusts. It has been well rehearsed this morning that having a baby who is born premature or sick can have a serious detrimental impact on the mental health of parents and frankly it is just luck whether they get that support at that time. I very much look forward to the Bill going to Committee, ensuring that it passes through the House speedily and can receive Royal Assent. I commend it to the House.
I, too, congratulate Stuart C. McDonald on this important Bill. As chair of the all-party group on maternity, I know all too well that more support is needed for parents and babies in neonatal care, including statutory pay and leave. I am proud that the UK already has a range of policies in place to support parents to balance work and family life, including family-related leave and pay entitlements, the right to request flexible working, and protections from detriment for parents seeking or taking time off work to care for their families. However, it has become increasingly clear through national consultations and my work chairing the all-party group that we should be offering even more support to parents whose babies are in neonatal care. That was a key pledge in our 2019 manifesto and I am delighted to support the Bill.
Although I do not have a neonatal care unit in my constituency, our midwives at the Rowan suite in Hartlepool are superb. They are some of the most caring and loving people I know. Still, no care, however brilliant, can truly beat that provided by parents themselves. Parents whose babies are in neonatal care should be able to spend as much time as possible by their baby’s side. Holding them in their arms, feeling that tiny heartbeat, stroking the first hairs on their head should not be overshadowed by worries about work and pay. We all know that this skin-to-skin contact in the first weeks following birth is essential to ensuring better outcomes for babies and their parents. Long periods of direct care by parents can improve breastfeeding rates, increase weight gain, improve infant reflexes, lead to better motor development, and reduce pain during invasive procedures.
However, too many parents are excluded from that direct care. As my hon. Friend Luke Hall and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said—I thank them for sharing their emotional stories—it is a particular problem for fathers. With only two weeks of paternity leave available, 66% of fathers have to return to work long before their babies are well enough to come home. In fact, in around 70% of families with a significant neonatal stay, one parent had to return to work while their baby was still being cared for in hospital—often in another city many miles away.
Although mothers are entitled to longer leave than fathers, many mothers also have to return to work before they should. This is because mothers whose babies are in neonatal care use weeks or months of their maternity leave while they are still in the hospital. When their baby comes home, mothers may only have a few weeks with their baby before their statutory maternity pay comes to an end. It is simply not right that mothers must return to the workplace when their baby has only just left neonatal care.
However, this is about more than parents’ financial worries; it is about addressing the emotional trauma a parent goes through when their baby is seriously unwell and in neonatal care. As many as 80% of parents report that their mental health deteriorated after their neonatal experience. They deserve our full support, which I believe this Bill will offer. No parent should be forced back into the workplace when their baby is in neonatal care. The financial and emotional stresses caused by the current system cannot go on. I join colleagues across the House in supporting this Bill, and I hope that mothers and fathers across the country will be reassured by the contributions in today’s debate.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald on securing this private Member’s Bill and on deciding to use the opportunity to introduce legislation on such an important subject.
The Bill makes provision for dedicated leave and pay for employees with responsibility for children receiving neonatal care. I hope it will receive cross-party support as the policy is long overdue. I am sure Members from all parties will be familiar with the situation, either through personal circumstances, as outlined by some hon. Members this morning, or family, and many constituents will also be affected by the current lack of financial support and security.
Parents in this situation currently have to spend a proportion of their maternity or paternity leave with the baby in hospital. Compared with their peers, babies who have to spend a long time in hospital after birth are usually at an earlier stage in their development when their mother or parents go back to work. That can be particularly upsetting for mothers, many of whom would like additional time with their child but cannot afford to take any more time off work. This initiative therefore has my strongest support.
Leave and pay for those with responsibility for children in neonatal care represent one crucial element in a wider response to the needs of these children and their parents. Before I consider the benefits of implementing such a policy, let me say a few words about the other essential element. Getting the best results depends largely on parents’ ability to take time to be with their baby when it is most vulnerable, in hospital-based neonatal units and services. In February 2019, the then Scottish Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman MSP, visited Crosshouse Hospital in East Ayrshire, only a few miles from my constituency. She was there to announce the launch of a Scottish Government initiative, backed by £12 million of dedicated funding, to testing a new model for neonatal careful. The scheme offers all expectant mums care from a primary midwife, alongside a small team, for their entire maternity journey. Support will be on hand to help parents with babies in neonatal units to provide as much day-to-day care for their newborn babies as possible. In March 2019, the scheme was welcomed by this House in an early-day motion tabled by SNP MPs. The Bill will build on that good work in Scotland and provide benefits for mothers, fathers, siblings and extended families across the United Kingdom.
After decades of falling neonatal mortality rates among all socioeconomic groups, we are now seeing a deeply worrying rising trend among the more deprived groups, which began two or more years after the UK Government’s austerity policies were first implemented. SNP MPs at Westminster have long been aware of the even greater impact of austerity policies in England, where the lack of mitigating actions of the kind implemented by the Scottish Government has resulted in even greater levels of poverty, particularly child poverty.
The scale of demand for neonatal care is considerable. According to Bliss—the leading charity whose vision is for every baby born prematurely or sick in the United Kingdom to have the best chance of survival and quality of life—more than 90,000 babies are cared for in neonatal units in the United Kingdom every year. Neonatal units and the services they offer are fundamental to the care of vulnerable children, but parents cannot always fully utilise them unless they are supported by a dedicated leave and pay entitlement that enables them to afford to do so.
My hon. Friend’s proposal recognises that a critical element of making a success of neonatal care is parents’ ability to take advantage of existing highly skilled and professional neonatal units. However, there are wider benefits. Research in 2018 showed that 80% of parents who have had a child admitted to neonatal intensive care feel that their mental health suffered, while 35% of parents report that there was a significant impact on their mental health. The inability to afford to be with their child in the neonatal unit for the full time is a major factor in those outcomes. The costs for those individuals personally and the impact on employment and family can be immense. Many thousands of families are affected.
The Bill is of considerable importance to the most vulnerable in our society. It will help families at one of the most difficult times in their lives and will demonstrate that as a country we recognise the value of providing support to parents and families who need it at the most emotionally difficult time for them. It has my strongest support and I hope that it will receive the full support of the House.
I congratulate Stuart C. McDonald on introducing this hugely important Bill. It has been about four and a half years since I last spoke from the Back Benches; it feels a little unfamiliar, but it is right that I am doing it on a sitting Friday for private Members’ Bills. One of the great benefits of having recently become an ex-Minister is that I have the opportunity to speak in debates like this one and put my support behind such excellent private Members’ Bills.
It is perhaps somewhat surprising, but I welcome the fact that the Scottish National party is helping to implement a Conservative manifesto commitment for us. I do not think that that would happen very often, but it is a testament to this House’s ability to come together around issues that really matter. When people watch proceedings of this House such as Prime Minister’s questions, they often see the combative nature of politics. I encourage many more people to watch sitting Fridays, when the House comes together to deliver outcomes and legislation that genuinely make a difference to people’s lives. That is one reason why I am very pleased to be here today.
Another reason is the persuasive skills of my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris, who does an amazing job of encouraging all Members who are able to come in on a Friday to contribute to important debates such as this one. I welcome my hon. Friend Jane Hunt to her place on the Front Bench; I very much hope that she will be there for many years to come.
The context of the Bill was ably set out by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. One in seven babies requires neonatal care of some sort, and 50,000 babies a year require neonatal care in hospital for more than a week, so the need is stark. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of other factors—for example, the need to look at the support and accommodation available to families in hospital settings, including simple things such as catering facilities. I encourage my successor in the Department of Health and Social Care to bear that in mind as we look to build new hospitals and upgrade others.
The Bill goes to the heart of what is hugely important to these families, too many of whom are asked to choose between their livelihoods, work and obligations, and their time with their child. This debate reminds me of the debates we had on what is now the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, which those who were Members of the House back in 2017 and 2018 will remember. In those debates, we talked about the fact that many businesses do the right thing and make support available, even though they are not compelled by statute to go as far as we will hopefully move towards today, but some do not, which is why it is right that we legislate through this Bill to put that right and fill the gap.
The Bill reminds me not only of those debates, but of our debates on the children’s funeral fund, for which Carolyn Harris campaigned. I was the Minister who put that in place. Again, that provision is hugely important. The two measures that I have outlined are in place for when the worst happens. Thankfully, today we are talking not about the worst happening, but about babies who need more neonatal care in hospital. However, there is a common theme that runs through the pieces of legislation that are already in place and this Bill: giving parents the time and space to be parents, to be with their children and to process what is going on, without at the same time having to worry constantly about what is happening to their job or their family finances.
I thank the hon. Member for all the help he gave me when he was a Minister; I am really grateful. I pledge my support to the Bill, because during lockdown I was blessed with two grandsons, and the provisions in the Bill would have made a huge difference to my daughter Angharad and her husband Ciaran—who we call “Shaky”, but that is another story!
It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with the hon. Lady on a number of issues during my stint in the Department of Health. That goes to the heart of what I said about how much we can achieve in the House—how much is often not seen outside the House—by working across the Chamber, making changes that are often small but that genuinely make a huge difference to people’s lives.
We have heard that there is already a degree of statutory support available, such as the ability to request flexible working, which is welcome, but it does not go far enough and it does not address the challenge of businesses that choose not to do the right thing, not to be flexible and not to support such families.
I hugely welcome what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has brought before the House. Of course there are details to be worked out, and I hope that can be done speedily and efficiently in Committee. I am happy to volunteer to the hon. Gentleman that if I am still on the Back Benches when the time comes—in anticipation of a possible longer stint on the Back Benches—I would be happy to serve on the Committee for this important piece of legislation. It is hugely important: no family or parent should be forced to choose, or feel forced to choose, between having the space to be with their child in neonatal care, and their livelihood and job, yet there are currently parents who have to make that choice every day. That cannot be right, which is why I hugely welcome the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. I look forward to supporting the Bill today and, should he so wish, to serving on the Bill Committee to help ensure that we get the legislation on to the statute book as quickly as possible.
I am delighted to be considering this important private Member’s Bill this morning and I thank Stuart C. McDonald— [Interruption.] I am sorry; I have honestly practised saying “Kirkintilloch East”—for bringing it forward. It is also a pleasure to follow Edward Argar. While the Conservative party occupies the Treasury Bench, I think it is time for him to be back on the Front Bench, because we cannot do without his talent. He is a massively respected Member and it would be good to see him back where he belongs.
I will not keep the House long, but I want to put my support on the record. A friend of mine gave birth to a very premature little girl some years ago, and I know she stayed with that little girl in hospital day in and day out until she was ready to leave hospital. I know that that time was truly precious, but I also know that it was terrifying. Thankfully, Esme is now doing really well: she is a tiny little dot with the hugest smile and so much energy and life. She just has a zest for life that is a joy to behold. She is thoroughly engaging and she is doing so very well at school, despite being the youngest and, I am sure, the tiniest in her class.
However, if Esme’s mum had not been able to stay there day in and day out, I am not sure the prognosis would have been as positive as it has been. I want to make sure that all families get to be there for their little ones when their little ones need them most. As we have heard, every year tens of thousands of babies are born prematurely or sick and need to remain in hospital. Of course their parents want to stay with them and have a say in their care. They just want to be with them, but right now we know that there are parents who want to stay with their baby but cannot, because their employer simply does not get it or because they cannot afford to take time off work and lose essential income.
As we have heard, according to the charity Bliss, for every week their baby is in hospital, parents end up having to spend an extra £282 on average. We all know that for many people that is simply not possible without incurring a huge and debilitating debt. It is not right that parents have to take sick leave instead of neonatal leave, because taking sick leave when they are not sick comes with a certain stigma. Frankly, employers do not like it, because they cannot reclaim statutory sick pay, so it costs them money.
Taking sick leave also disincentivises employers from doing the right thing and offering paid neonatal care. We need to keep in mind that these mums, dads, other carers and relatives are going through hell. I really hope that today we will do all we can to ease some of the terrible pressure they are under and support their right to paid leave. Across this House we often talk about giving children the best start in life, equal opportunities and levelling up. If we mean what we say and we truly want to give newborn babies the best start in life, we need to make sure that their parents can be there in the hospital with them to develop that early bond. We need to make sure that parents, including dads, can maintain skin-to-skin contact with their babies, which is so important for development and bonding. We all know how damaging and traumatic it can be to separate a child from its parents at such an early age, and we know that a major way of looking after children is by helping out their parents in these crucial times. For those who have to cope with the additional strain of a child in hospital and the terror, the trauma, that goes with having a sick or premature baby, additional support is so desperately needed. If we want them to have the best chance of keeping their family together, of supporting each other and of enabling their child’s healthy emotional education and social development, we have to give them time with their baby.
A law to allow paid leave for neonatal care has been a long time coming, so I hope the Government will honour their commitment to introducing paid leave for neonatal care by ensuring the smooth and quick passage of this Bill.
I congratulate the hon. Member on his Bill. I will not attempt to say the name of his constituency, but I would love to visit one day.
I will not speak for too long, but I will address some of the points that have been raised. First, I endorse this Bill and will do all I can to support its passage. This is such an important issue. We heard earlier about personal experience, and the personal experiences of my friends who have had to use neonatal care, including my hon. Friend Luke Hall and David Linden, really touch one’s heart. Those precious moments, from our child’s first seconds, are embedded in our souls, our minds and our memories.
Thankfully, my daughter did not need neonatal care, but those moments—the nine months leading up to her birth, and the seconds after she was born—are seared into me. They create tears, memories and hopes for the future. I cannot imagine what it must be like, in those first few weeks, for a parent to be stuck at work when they want to be with their child at their most precious, most vulnerable and most fragile. All a parent would want is just to be there to support them and, even if they cannot hug them, to know that they are close enough to do so.
For me, this Bill is much more than just legislation. It is about doing the right thing and it is about compassion. I came into politics because I believe in people and because I believe in a compassionate society. We sometimes disagree in this House on how we get there, but this is one issue on which we can come together.
My daughter was born in my constituency at Watford General Hospital, which has a neonatal unit, and during the pandemic I did voluntary work in the maternity unit’s filing area. I had not realised how much work the staff do behind the scenes before a child is born, and in the following weeks, to make sure they are safe. The neonatal period is intense. There is so much happening, and so many moments that require a rapid reaction. Again, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a parent to be away from their baby as they wait, listen and hang on for a phone call or message to find out if everything is going to be okay.
I absolutely endorse this Bill, and I wish the hon. Member the best of luck today. The Minister is doing a fantastic job in her first week, and I urge her to support the Bill’s passage to leave a legacy. Generations to come will talk about this day for many years.
As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies, and as someone whose family has had experience of these matters, I congratulate my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald on choosing paid neonatal care leave as the subject of his Bill, and on putting the case so well and so fully. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend David Linden, the chair of the all-party group, for all his campaigning on an issue which, as we have heard, is also very personal to him.
Given that the Government are supportive and are also keen to get through a number of Bills today, I will not seek to repeat the arguments that have been made so forcefully by the hon. Members for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer), my hon. Friend Allan Dorans, Edward Argar—he nearly put the kibosh on the Bill by claiming that it was fulfilling a Conservative manifesto commitment, but we will gloss over that for now—Ms Brown who has my sympathy; the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East is indeed a mouthful, Dean Russell, and, obviously, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East. Instead, I will talk briefly about my family’s experience, and about the good luck that we had on so many levels.
My wife Lynn had pre-eclampsia during both her pregnancies. It was particularly acute during her first pregnancy, with our daughter Emma. The care that she received when she was eventually admitted was exemplary. I could not fault it; it was fantastic from start to finish. However, when my wife was first sent to hospital by her GP, having presented feeling nauseous and light-headed and with various other symptoms, she was not taken entirely seriously when she got there. Her blood pressure was up and down, and at one point her condition was diagnosed as “white coat syndrome” and she was sent home. But she knows her own body, and she did not feel right at all, so she made a phone call, went back to the hospital, and was eventually admitted.
Emma was born six and a half weeks early, in an emergency caesarean. Thankfully, she seemed healthy for a baby born so early, in comparison with many even smaller babies whose care was more critical and more urgent. She was certainly loud enough, although our youngest, Eilidh, has since managed to beat her quite convincingly on the decibel front. My ears can attest to the fact that that has not changed throughout the last nearly 16 years and 12 years respectively. They will be grateful for that!
Once Emma was born, my wife sent me straight back to work. My hon. Friend spoke of the choices that we are forced to face in these circumstances. My wife wanted my paternity leave to coincide with her arriving home from hospital with Emma, so that I could help around the house following her caesarean. As other Members have mentioned, it does not feel natural in the slightest to go back to work when a small, fragile baby girl is in an incubator and an exhausted wife is recovering from surgery, but back to work I went, because we do as we are told—sometimes.
I am a former member of the all-party group, because the subject is important to me as well, but may I make a point about work and productivity? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that people who have been through this experience and have been afforded the necessary space will then go back to work and be more productive? Does he believe that other employees, seeing that happening, will feel that they need not make a choice between work and family, will see this as a compassionate society, and will do better work as a result?
I could not agree more, but my productivity probably could not be measured in that way, because I had gone back to work. Having done so, I spoke with colleagues, receiving their congratulations and so on. Not long after my return, I was called into the office by my boss Thomas, who sent me straight back to the hospital, saying that my place was by Lynn’s side, supporting her. Moreover, he said that I was not to worry about leave or money, and I was given additional paid leave for as long as I required it. My wife’s boss similarly ensured that her maternity leave started at the originally planned date.
This was not policy, in either case; the additional leave was given at those bosses’ discretion. I want to thank Thomas Kelly and Steve Tomlin for their empathy and for their support. We were extremely lucky to have such empathetic bosses, but as others have said, it should not be down to luck.
I am here to support this Bill because of the experiences of my sister with my niece Erin, who was born three years ago. I looked after my nephew and other niece throughout that week.
The importance of this Bill, as my hon. Friend knows from his own experiences, is that it would alleviate somewhat the stress that people go through, because they would not have to worry about their leave or pay. Does he agree that that is one reason why the Bill needs to go through the House today?
I certainly do, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend managed to get in just before my final sentence, not least because his sister went to the same school as me.
I hope that, despite the mayhem all around the Minister at the moment, she will see this paid leave rolled out as quickly as possible so that all parents are as lucky as we were.
It has been very moving to hear the experiences of many Members, including my hon. Friend Luke Hall and David Linden. I do not have children myself, but we all empathise with them in the traumatic experiences they have had. I speak on behalf of my constituents in saying that we think this Bill is simply the right thing to do.
On a personal basis, it is pleasing for me to speak in this debate because, until last week, I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so I was part of some of the discussions on the Bill. It is good to see it come to the Floor of the House. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Paul Scully, who is going on to bigger and greater things. He was an exceptional Minister in BEIS, and he is compassionate and focused and has done great work on this topic. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Jane Hunt, to her place, and I know she will do an exceptional job of carrying on that work.
I also pay tribute to the many charities that have been advocating for the Bill. Bliss has been mentioned on a number of occasions, but others such as The Smallest Things and Tommy’s have also been involved. I thank all the parents who have shared their individuals stories, because that has the most impact.
My hon. Friend Edward Argar put it so well: people should not be asked to choose between their livelihood and being with a very ill newborn child. The scale of this issue is large: I was surprised to read that one in seven children needs neonatal care, and more than 50,000 a year spend considerable time in neonatal care units. This is an ongoing problem, because 80% of those children need ongoing medical assistance and almost half end up back in neonatal care. This is not simply a one-off event.
There is no question that when a child is born prematurely or with major healthcare issues, the only place for the parents should be by their side. My hon. Friend Jill Mortimer put it very well when she said that those first few days and weeks of close physical contact are so important for the development of a child. Also, critical decisions may have to be made while a baby is in neonatal care. Those can literally be life and death decisions, and the parents need to be there when they are being made. They should not be at work. They need to be there in real time, seeing the development of the child’s care. While all the medical staff do the most amazing job, there is nothing better than the focus of relatives and parents. I have seen that in other situations when I have visited family and friends in hospital. It is the care of the immediate relatives that can sometimes be so, so powerful.
I have talked about the scale of the problem, but I also want to talk about the intensity of the problem. These are some of the most traumatic moments that any parent will go through. My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate talked very powerfully about the mental health issues that parents may suffer. I was also quite surprised to read that 66% of fathers end up having to go back to work while their child is in neonatal care. That may have been okay 30 or 40 years ago, but I think we all now live in a world where we realise it is vital that both parents, whatever sex they may be, are very, very involved at the earliest stages of the care. That is very important.
What is also very important is that once the child comes out of neonatal care both mothers and fathers can spend time with the child. I heard a few weeks ago that a lot of parents end up using their maternity and paternity leave in the intensive care unit, and then, when the child goes home from the ICU, they immediately have to go back to work at that point and do not have the few weeks or months of bonding once the child is home. If your child has been in neonatal care—either because they have been incredibly premature or had serious health issues—you need that bonding time even more than if it were a normal healthy child.
Some people have asked, “Does this put too much of the burden on employers?” I argue that that is not the case. I started off by saying that as a society we need to do the right thing, and this is clearly the right thing, but employers also need to do the right thing. I argue that it is in the interests of employers to do the right thing. We are in an employment environment where it is incredibly difficult to hire good-quality talent, with the lowest unemployment rates since 1974, so it is in the economic interest of employers to provide good packages for employees, because they are in a war for talent and they can only secure the best talent if they are a humane, compassionate employer. Most employers will use discretion and do the right thing, but we should not be subject to an employer’s whims and their discretion. This needs to be in statute, so I am grateful to Stuart C. McDonald for introducing this important Bill. This is a Conservative manifesto pledge and we also had it in our March 2020 Budget, so it is good that it is coming to fruition in such a cross-party and co-operative manner.
I will conclude my remarks by saying that I very much welcome this legislation. It is the right thing to do and my constituents think it is the right thing to do. There is no question but that when someone has a child in neonatal care, the parents should be there too and not in work. They should be doing everything they can to support their baby at that time, and they should have the support of society.
Having observed that this Bill has total unanimity of support in the House, I do not think it compromises my usual impartiality if I seek to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East—it is quite easy to say that when you know how—on bringing forward such an excellent Bill. Having given birth to a premature baby one week after a general election, and in the middle of a Conservative leadership election, I can understand some of the stresses and strains that have been expressed this morning. Let us proceed, with Ruth Jones.
Thank you for calling me and for indulging me this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not going to speak in this debate but I have been so inspired by hearing everybody else that I feel that I must add my personal support, and that of my party, to the Bill. I thank Stuart C. McDonald for bringing it forward, as it is so important. I also thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your eloquent words highlighting exactly why we are doing this.
As a former physiotherapist—I worked as a paediatric physio for many years—I am proud to say that I set up the physio service at what was the special care baby unit at the Royal Gwent Hospital in my constituency; obviously, it is now known as the neonatal intensive care unit. It was set up because the evidence was clear that parents need to be with their children at that stage when their babies are born. We are talking about babies born as young as 24 weeks, which gives them 16 weeks to get to the normal gestational age, so it is really important that parents are there from the very beginning. The scientific research, which I am proud to say I was partly involved with, shows just how important bonding with parents is at that age. We have heard eloquent speeches from others about the importance of breastfeeding, the weight gain and the calming ability of what physios would call “handling”, what we here would call “cuddles” and, obviously, what we in Wales we would call “cwtshys”. It is very important that these cwtshys are there, from mums and dads—we must not forget dads, as it is so important that they are able to be included.
We also need to remember what happens during the transition home. After perhaps 10 weeks having been spent in a very scientific and clinical area, taking that little precious baby home is very scary for parents. It is so important that dad is there with mum to support with that transition back. I endorse all the points made by other eloquent speakers in this debate, but I urge the Minister to do all she can to make sure that the Bill progresses, despite any turbulence we might be having because of leadership elections. It is really important that we get this Bill on the statute book to benefit parents and babies across the UK.
It is a pleasure to be responding to this debate, and I thank Stuart C. McDonald for bringing the Bill forward—[Interruption.] I think the trick is to say it quite fast. I also thank all my hon. Friends who are here to support it. I was glad to see the Bill top the ballot and the hon. Member take up the work, building on that of David Linden, who, as he outlined, has been pressing for this for a long time and who talked about his own experience with Isaac and Jessica. He spoke powerfully, as a number of Members have today, based on his own experience.
Parents should not have to be at work or worrying about work when their child is in this situation. We heard from the hon. Members for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), for Glasgow East, and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), as well as from my hon. Friend Ms Brown who spoke about Esme, who sounds delightful, about just what parents have to go through.
When I visited the neonatal intensive care unit at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, it was just heartbreaking to see those tiny little babies in the incubators. Sadly in quite a few cases those children will not ever be going home with their parents, and I cannot think of anything worse than having to sit there watching a child with a very short life, almost waiting for it to die. In many cases, the kids do get to go home and it is brilliant to hear how they are thriving. Madam Deputy Speaker, I was very glad to hear you talk about your own experience. I think you are excused for speaking from the Chair on this occasion.
In a civilised society, we have a duty of care to people who are at an incredibly traumatic time in their lives. As I said, it must be heart-wrenching to be in that situation. We have heard from Bliss, and we all pay tribute to the charities involved in campaigning for this Bill. They are there to support the parents of babies who are born prematurely or ill. As we have heard, one in seven babies born in the UK receives some level of neonatal care shortly after birth. Thankfully, many do return home with their families after just a few days of care, but around 50,000 spend more than a week in neonatal care every year.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said that some employers are very understanding, but others are not. In some cases, it is not that they do not want to be, it is just that as a small employer it can be difficult to financially support parents in that situation, but this Bill will put everybody on an even footing. The hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate talked about the ridiculous and impossible position that parents are put in when forced to choose between work and being with a child in hospital. He talked about his tiny son. When he said, “You just want to be there”, that is all it comes down to, and it is where parents should be. They should be able to put work completely out of their minds when in such a situation.
We have heard that some parents are put in an agonising position where they are forced back to work to cover their bills. That is particularly true for fathers and non-birthing partners who are entitled to just two weeks of paternity leave. It also affects mothers who run out of maternity leave if their babies end up having to have longer stays in hospital. Another issue is the after-care needed when families are at long last able to take their baby home—all these follow-up appointments and the checks on the babies’ health. It is worth mentioning that sometimes they will not be the first child or only child in the family. When my niece was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a few weeks old, my sister had to balance trying to make sure that she was absolutely their priority, with the two older children who were only toddlers and needed help and support, too. Trying to juggle all that is just so difficult. In some cases it can be a lifelong commitment if the child has disabilities or continuing conditions. Even without those logistics of having to be in hospital or attend appointments, it is about emotionally wanting to just focus on that one thing.
We have heard a spirit of cross-party consensus today. When we were in government, I was the Friday Whip, and I have been here on many Fridays when there has been endless tedious filibustering. That is such an utter waste of time, and it is very difficult to explain to constituents who really want us to support Bills. When I found myself on Bench duty today, I was quite surprised that the Whip told me that we were hoping to get through quite a few Bills, and that we would be supporting them and hoping to get them into Committee. That is exactly how we ought to be working together.
I do not want to get too party political, but I will say that it is disappointing, given that neonatal leave and pay was a manifesto commitment, that we are having to rely on a private Member’s Bill to get to this stage. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, says, “It’s faster; that’s why we’re doing it,” but the Government consulted on this issue in the previous Parliament, and they said in their official response that Ministers remained committed to a new entitlement. They committed to it again in the “Good Work Plan”, they committed to legislation in the 2019 manifesto, and they were due to address it in the employment Bill, which has twice been trailed and then dropped from the legislative programme. The shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds, said when it was dropped that that was an extraordinary move.
We are where we are. I hope that we can get the Bill through very quickly. Labour very much supports it. As we set out in our new deal for working people, we will give families the right to flexible working and to paid family and carers leave, and provide workers with greater ability to enforce those rights. As I said, I am pleased to see the spirit of co-operation today. I urge the House to give the Bill its Second Reading, and I hope that we can get it through Committee and see it become law as quickly as possible.
I thank Stuart C. McDonald for bringing forward this important Bill, and I thank all hon. Members who have spoken on this important matter today. I am pleased to confirm that the Government will support the Bill.
As a mother myself, I know exactly how incredible that moment is when your baby is born. It is a time that should be full of joy and excitement. It must be devastating to see your baby whisked away and in need of urgent medical care, yet feel unable to do anything about it except be there. I can only offer my full support to all those who have experienced that.
That is why I am pleased to be here today and pleased to have taken on this important portfolio. I am deeply committed to ensuring that the UK is the best place in the world to work and grow a business. We need a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. I take this opportunity to thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend Paul Scully—
Absolutely, and he is now a Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I think hon. Members will agree that he is a committed and compassionate Minister, and I am pleased to be following him and moving this agenda forward—I will have to work very hard indeed to do so. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies, and in particular its chair, David Linden.
Neonatal care leave and pay will enable thousands of parents to care for and be with their children in neonatal care without worrying about whether their job is at risk. I am pleased to see that the Bill has support across the House, as has been reflected in the debate—I thank everybody very much. I will take time to address some of the points raised by hon. Members, but first let me put on the record why the Government support the Bill.
As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East explained, every year in the UK, an estimated 100,000 babies are admitted to neonatal care following their birth, for a range of medical reasons. The United Kingdom has a range of generous entitlements and protections designed to support parents to balance their family and work commitments and maintain their place in the labour market while raising their children. However, for parents in the worrying position of having their newborn admitted to neonatal care, it is clear that the current leave and pay entitlements do not provide adequate support.
“The current system is also a massive barrier for fathers and non-childbearing parents in particular. Earlier this week, 75% of parents who responded to a survey from Bliss, the incredible charity, said that they or their partner went back to work before their baby was home from hospital. Some of those children will still have been on ventilation and receiving critical care. Previous research suggests that the most common reason for that is they simply cannot afford to take more time off work. That is happening every single day, right around the country, to families of premature and sick children.”—[Official Report,
That is why we are here today and have been able to come to an agreement. The Government have previously consulted on the issue. In March 2020, we committed to introducing a new entitlement to neonatal leave and pay. We are pleased to support the Bill, which will bring that policy into effect.
I will address some of the specific points that hon. Members have made. First, I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for bringing forward the Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate for bringing his personal experience so emotionally and compassionately to the Chamber. My hon. Friend Jill Mortimer talked particularly about fathers. I absolutely support what she said about giving extra time to both parents to be there for their child. I will refer to some of the points raised by Allan Dorans later.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East also talked movingly about his personal experience. Ms Brown mentioned a specific case. My hon. Friend Dean Russell volunteered in his own Watford hospital—a legacy for all here today, hopefully, we will provide. Gavin Newlands referred to his personal experience and his children, who are clearly taking after their father. On his behalf, I also thank Thomas and Steve, the employers who helped him and his wife and did all they could to support them as members of staff.
My hon. Friend Felicity Buchan said that the Bill is the right thing to do and talked about bonding time; we must agree that that is a vital relationship for parents at that time. She also said that good employers are already doing the right thing and helping with newborn children. This Bill is a floor, not a ceiling. I want to ensure that everybody gets a good level of care, and other businesses may be able to put something on top of that, as she said.
I will refer to the point made by Ruth Jones later. Madam Deputy Speaker, who is no longer in her place, talked about what happened to her and the stressful time that she had in more ways than one. Kerry McCarthy pointed out that the child is often not the only child in the family, which must be considered. There were also many helpful and supportive interventions from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate raised concerns about the length of time that it would take for the Bill to be implemented. There is clearly cross-party support for the Bill and we hope that it will complete its parliamentary passage and receive Royal Assent as swiftly as possible. Setting up a new leave and pay entitlement takes time. It requires secondary legislation and changes to Government systems that administer statutory payments, and businesses need good notice in order to prepare. HMRC and commercial payroll providers require at least 18 months’ lead time to implement such changes following Royal Assent. I spoke with my officials this week, however, and we are looking at what we can do to speed that up. I note that Edward Argar, the hon. Member for Newport West all requested that.
That is a good idea, and I will take that up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate also raised concerns about why seven full days of neonatal are required before the entitlement is triggered. In response, I flag that the policy is primarily intended to support parents of babies facing longer stays in hospital and that the needs of parents in that position must be balanced against those of their employer. When developing the approach, the responses from parents, parent representative groups and business representatives to the 2019 consultation on neonatal leave and pay were considered.
I have a small, technical point. I completely accept the seven-day trigger, which is largely in line with what everyone was expecting, but I was not expecting that the first day appears to be the day after birth, so it is actually eight days. We do not need to deal with that today—we could look at it in Committee—but will the Minister commit to taking that away and talking to officials in BEIS? That conversation can continue throughout the Bill’s passage.
I absolutely will take that away.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock referred to other family leave and pay entitlements. Parents have access to a range of pay and leave entitlements in their child’s first year, giving working families more choice and flexibility about who cares for their child and when. Our maternity leave entitlement is generous. To qualifying employed women, we offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid. That is more than three times the EU minimum requirement. For self-employed women, and those who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance may be available. Both maternity payments are designed to provide a measure of financial security to help women to stop working towards the end of their pregnancy and in the months after childbirth in the interests of their and their baby’s health and wellbeing.
We also recognise that fathers and partners play a crucial role in the first year of their child’s life, both through supporting the mother and by developing a relationship with the child. Paternity leave arrangements enable employed fathers and partners who meet the qualifying conditions to take up to two weeks of paid leave within the first eight weeks following the birth of their child or placement for adoption. We recognise, however, that paternity leave can be improved, so we made a manifesto commitment to make it easier for fathers and partners to take it. We will announce how we will be doing that in due course.
Shared parental leave and pay provides parents with flexibility over their child’s care in the first year. It challenges the assumption that the mother will always be the primary carer and enables working parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay in the first year of their child’s life. That enables mothers who want to return to work early to do so and enables fathers and partners to be their child’s primary carer if the parents wish. To help make shared parental leave more accessible, we launched an online tool last year that allows parents to check their eligibility and plan their leave. We are evaluating the shared parental leave scheme and will publish further findings in due course.
The hon. Member for Bristol East queried the length of time it has taken to legislate and deliver this entitlement. In 2019, the Conservative party manifesto committed to introducing neonatal leave care and pay. We consulted on the details and published a response in 2020. During covid, the Government rightly prioritised our response to the pandemic. We are pleased that the neonatal care leave and pay entitlement is now being taken forward in legislation and fully support this Bill.
I did not intend to speak today, as this is a particularly fresh issue for me and it has been a challenging few weeks. I thank my SNP colleagues for the support that they have given to me and my family in that regard. Before the Minister concludes, will she place on record her thanks and support for all the staff who work tirelessly in neonatal units across these isles, and the miraculous work they do to keep young people alive and give them the futures that they deserve?
Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention. That is absolutely spot-on and correct, and I fully support everything he said.
In conclusion, these measures would provide invaluable support and protection for parents during some of the most stressful days of their lives when their children are in neonatal care. That entitlement is also backed by Government evidence and analysis, showing a clear need for further support for those parents. Therefore, the Government are pleased to support the Bill. Supporting the Bill is in line with our ongoing commitment to support workers and build a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy. It is good to see support from across the political spectrum for this important measure, as is clear from the debate. I look forward to continuing to work with the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to support the passage of the Bill.
May I say how grateful, and indeed humbled, I am with the way Members have spoken so passionately, coming together unanimously to support the Bill? I was optimistic about support for the Bill, but it has taken my breath away. Indeed, Dean Russell has suggested a visit to my constituency, and the talented former Minister, Edward Argar requested to serve on the Bill Committee. The answer, of course, is yes, particularly if he can bring a friend. There was even a welcome and powerful intervention from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, which we all appreciated.
Many Members raised similar points, which is testimony to the work of charities such as Bliss and others, how they have advocated for this case, and how we have all become familiar with the arguments in favour of the Bill. Many other sensible points have been added, which it was remiss of me to miss out in my opening speech. One of those was about the benefit to employers. Employers are overwhelmingly in support of these measures. They appreciate that having folk at work who have kids in neonatal care is of no use to them, and they end up managing it through sick pay and other means, rather than through proper statutory leave.
Finally, it is so important to welcome and highlight the fantastic work of staff in neonatal units up and down the country, and I look forward to visiting the constituency of my hon. Friend Marion Fellows to see that at first hand. As I said at the outset of the debate, the best advocates for this cause are those who speak from personal experience. I am particularly grateful to MPs who have spoken from that point of view today, and I look forward to working with them all in the weeks ahead to as the Bill continues its passage through the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (