It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will set out briefly the purpose of the Bill. No one would doubt that losing a child is the most harrowing experience for any parent. It is the thing we dread most. As a father of four, I know that is every mother or father’s worst fear, and one that never goes away.
First, I pay tribute to members of the Committee, in particular, my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury and for Eddisbury and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran—and, of course, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester for his incredible work in this area. I am fortunate to have the opportunity hopefully to carry the Bill through to its final stages, and I am keen to do so as quickly as possible to ensure that we get it over the line. So much good work has been done in this Parliament and the previous one to ensure that this important piece of legislation comes forward.
Many charities have been in touch to express their support for the Bill, such as Child Bereavement UK, Bliss, Together for Short Lives and Jack’s Rainbow, as well as the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, the all-party parliamentary group for children who need palliative care, and my constituents, Annika and James Dowson, who first drew my attention to their terrible tragedy with their daughter, Gypsy, who was stillborn. They—like many people in such situations—have found a way to channel their grief by using their efforts to alleviate the suffering of others in the same situation. In their case, they have raised much money for the bereavement suite at Scarborough hospital.
I am also grateful for the cross-party co-operation we have seen—we are all keen for the Bill to progress. Many other people have been involved, including the parliamentary digital outreach team, who helped us to get in touch with many people who have suffered these terrible tragedies and let us learn of their experiences.
The Bill puts on the statute book for the very first time that parents will have a day-one entitlement to two weeks’ leave if they should suffer this tragedy. We talked to many people about this Bill, and when we explain its provisions, people say, “Why is that not the case already?” That is a good start to introducing new legislation; there is clearly something wrong when such legislation does not exist already.
The entitlement is for a child below the age of 18. I know that there are some amendments that we will debate, which ask whether we have all the provisions in the Bill in the right place. I am very keen to hear from members of the Committee about whether the current qualifying criteria are correct.
There is also the rate of pay for this leave. After 26 weeks, there is an entitlement to statutory pay—£141 a week, or 90% of earnings. There is also flexibility in taking the leave—those two weeks over the first eight-week period. Again, I know that is something we need to discuss in this Committee.
We will also consider eligibility. Is the leave for biological parents, or for a wider group of people who come under that umbrella term, “parents”? These days, of course, people tend to have a number of parental figures in their life and we need to take time to consider such points properly.
I think that we are all aware of the fragility of the private Member’s Bill process. We are delighted to have Government support for this Bill, but we are very keen to ensure that we get it through at the earliest opportunity, so that those people who have lost children receive the support they need.
On examination of the Bill, all hon. Members will have noticed, of course, that clause 1 is uncontroversial and simply allows for consideration of the substance of the Bill—the schedule that is referred to. Clause 2 is just a procedural clause, which provides for the date on which the Bill will come into force, the extent of any amendment or appeal as set out in the schedule, and the short title of the Bill.
With your agreement, Mr Gray, I propose that we do not dwell on clause 2 and instead move on to the substance of the Bill, which is in the schedule, once we have considered the proposed new clause.
Thank you very much, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to come to this Committee and work on this Bill, which is the first Bill that I will consider in my new role. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has outlined what the clauses do; I will not repeat that. I will just say that I support the purpose of the clauses.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the fact that this legislation does not exist already is almost unbelievable; I cannot believe that it has taken until 2018 to table such a measure, and create the right to parental leave and pay. I am therefore pleased that, through this private Member’s Bill, we will create such legislation. I give thanks to the hon. Gentleman. By the way, we agree that everything is better up north; that is one of the few things we agree on. We also agree on the purpose of this Bill and we will use this Committee not only to improve the Bill—potentially—but to ensure that it is passed.
I have to say that I am humbled to speak in this debate alongside people who unfortunately have first-hand experience of losing a child, and I place on the record how much I admire all of them and all their strength.
The principle should be that if someone is in work—whatever type of work they do and for however long they have done it—when catastrophe strikes and their child dies, either as a result of a long-term health condition, a freak accident, or anything in between, they should have time off to recover and there should be no financial detriment to their taking that period of recovery. I just cannot imagine the pain and grief that someone experiences when they lose the closest person to them, and the fact that they need to function so quickly after they have felt such grief is impossible to comprehend.
As has been mentioned in previous debates, there are of course employers who will be very understanding and who will make time for people to grieve and to make arrangements. However, we also have to acknowledge, as I think this Bill does, that there are employers who do not show the same compassion at this most dreadful time.
All the statistics tell us something. For example, he National Council for Palliative Care says that a shocking 31% of people who have been bereaved in the last five years felt that they had not been treated with compassion by their employer. In my view, that is an astounding statistic and it is also proof that the Government must take action, and rightly are taking action, to provide protection for these people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
This is, indeed, a very exciting day, and the culmination of nearly three years’ work. I fully support the Bill, amending the Employment Rights Act 1996 and giving parents who sadly suffer the loss of a child the statutory right to two weeks’ paid leave. I first introduced a Bill on this matter in the previous Parliament. The issue was, and remains, one of the burning injustices that I wanted to address during my time in Parliament, which is why I am so supportive of this Bill and the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.
Why is this issue so important to me? It is important because it is personal. Having gone through the experience of losing a child in 2014, I saw the impact that it had on not just me but the wider family, and my wife in particular. We had all the protections that come with a stillbirth: the full rights of maternity and paternity, which do not exist for those who lose a child after six or seven months.
When I joined Parliament I started researching this subject and looking at why there was this gap in provision and no statutory protection. I came across a similar Bill that was introduced back in 2013 by the former Member for Glasgow South, Tom Harris. He recognised that there was an issue here, based on a personal case in his constituency. I have been liaising with Tom, who has been hugely helpful and supportive of my Bill coming back before the House as a ten-minute rule Bill and its continuation in this Bill. I also met a lady called Lucy Herd who set up an organisation and charity called Jack’s Rainbow. She sadly lost her child who I believe was around two years old, and she has campaigned tirelessly on this issue for several years.
Although Tom did not get as far as starting to draft his Bill, he presented a ten-minute rule Bill that kicked off the process of getting Parliament to think about the gap in provision. With the help of the Table Office, we then drafted a Bill that was an initial variant or incarnation of what we see in front of us today. Sadly, the Session timed out and we were not able to take it through to get it on the statute book.
Along with a number of colleagues from across the House who care passionately about this issue, we campaigned as hard as we could on a cross-party basis, and as a result managed to get this policy in all the four main parties’ manifestos, which was no mean feat. I will be eternally grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for picking up the baton and running with this Bill. When a Member comes high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, they are inundated with requests from charities, different organisations and local, constituency cases from people who want them to take on their cause and campaign. Within about 20 to 30 seconds of a phone call with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton when I knew that he had come up high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, he did not hesitate to say yes. That is a credit to him and shows how passionate he is too about addressing this issue.
I also thank the Government for their support for the Bill, and in particular the former Minister, my hon. Friend Margot James, who has been so supportive. From the point at which my Bill fell in the last Parliament, we had a number of meetings in the Department to work out ways in which we could thrash this issue out and bring it forward again.
I also welcome the new Minister to his place. Knowing him as well as I do, and from the work that we have already done on this important issue, I know that he is as passionate as we all are about getting the Bill over the line and on to the statute book. I thank all Members from across the House who have supported this campaign and the Bill, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said, all the different charities and organisations that have been so supportive of the Bill and have fed into the process with their different ideas. We will not agree with all of them—some of them are not entirely practical—but we might agree with some of them, and the point is that they have been very forthcoming with their ideas and views.
Why is the Bill needed? Why is it so important? To put it bluntly, it is because there can be few more distressing life events than the loss of a child. I know that a number of hon. Members across the Committee have experienced that loss. Personally, I can only speak having gone through a stillbirth. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a child at one, three, five, 15 or 17. Up to 5,000 children die every year in the UK, which means that thousands of parents have to go through that personal tragedy.
Having gone through our experience of losing a baby through stillbirth, I must stress how important it is to have the time to come to terms with the huge loss. Often, by their very nature, an infant or child death is a sudden one. People need the time to come to terms with what has happened, and to make those necessary arrangements.
We have spoken a bit, and I have seen correspondence with different charities, about the age limit. The age limit of 18 is partly because there has to be an arbitrary figure, and also because up to that point there is no person other than the parents, who have the sole responsibility for making arrangements such as registering a death, organising a funeral and letting the wider family know. That responsibility falls almost exclusively on the parents, which is why the Bill is entitled Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay). It is specifically aimed at dependants.
The hon. Member for North West Durham pointed out that the vast majority of employers are already brilliant and act with compassion, kindness and huge amounts of sympathy. The vast majority bend over backwards to make it as easy as possible for their employees to come to terms with what is a most horrific life event. But sadly, some do not. That is why this statutory protection is so important. I mentioned that when a child is stillborn—after 24 weeks—parents are entitled to full maternity and paternity rights. That is the same if parents lose a child neonatally. However, if parents lose a child after that point, technically they are entitled to nothing. Why should parents who lose a child in the first few weeks and months of life not have the same type of statutory protection? It cannot be right, and that is why we have to address the matter in law.
The position of the law as it stands, under the Employment Rights Act 1996, is that people are entitled to time off for dependants. There is a rather vague definition of a reasonable amount of time. To be frank, what is reasonable to one person is not necessarily reasonable to another—it is purely at the employer’s discretion. Although the vast majority of employers are brilliant, some have not even allowed their staff to have the time off to attend a funeral. That is simply unacceptable and it is why we need this statutory protection.
There are countless cases of employees being pressurised into going back to work. At the moment, we have that theoretical right of a vaguely defined reasonable amount of time, but there is no statutory right at all for that time off to be paid. Many employers will keep their staff on full pay during that period, but some do not. I am aware of the pressures on business—we should take their needs and requirements into consideration. We do not want to put unnecessary burdens on business, but the Bill is good for business because it creates an element of certainty.
The Bill was never intended to state what must be provided in every case, but rather the bare minimum that must be provided under statute. Most employers will go much further and we all encourage them to do so, because if they take care of their employees at the most difficult time in their lives, that buys a huge amount of loyalty. Those individuals will respect that hugely. The statutory provision on pay, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton outlined, means that businesses will be able to recoup some of that money, so there will be a financial incentive for businesses to do the right thing.
Every bereaved parent is different. Some will want this Bill and some will not. Some will choose to take parental bereavement leave and some will choose not to. Some will want to take it immediately and some will want to take it later. There is a strong argument that fathers in particular want to go straight back to work as a coping mechanism. I will not say whether that is right or wrong—it is entirely up to them—but we want to ensure that the legislation is as flexible as possible and that it is a fair and reasonable compromise between the employee and the employer.
The Bill is about statutory protection. There are some European and worldwide precedents for such measures, but it is important to say that if we pass this Bill, or a variant thereof with a few minor amendments and tweaks, we will have some of the best workers’ rights in this area in Europe, and indeed in the world, which is something that we can be hugely proud of.
The hon. Member for North West Durham pointed out that the Bill is not perfect. We will no doubt, I suspect, have minor disagreements about what we want the Bill to include, in particular perhaps about the length of time when the leave can be taken and about the eligibility criteria. Indeed, I have tabled amendments of my own. However, I repeat what I said at the beginning: the Bill is the result of more than two years’ work, so please let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. This Bill must pass. We have to get it on to the statute book. It is a hugely important first step that gives thousands of parents up and down the country the statutory protection that they rightly deserve and the time and peace to grieve.
I want to echo some of what has been said. I most sincerely and profoundly thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton for introducing this very important Bill and for all the work he has done to ensure that we reach this point, building on the work of the hon. Member for Colchester and the former Member for Glasgow South.
The anomaly of bereaved parents and the injustice they face of not having any protection in employment law is finally being addressed. This is a good day for Parliament. The Bill is warmly welcomed by every one of my Scottish National party colleagues and has support across the House, as we would expect. As has been said, most employers are perfectly decent, but we all understand —perhaps this is where the Bill arises from—that such an important matter cannot be left to the good will of individual employers.
Many of us have had the tragic and life-changing experience of having to bury our own child, but the Bill is not for us. It is for all those men and women who will have to undergo that agony in future. We in public life, especially those of us who have gone through that traumatic experience, have a duty—a desire by which we are often driven—to improve the situation for those who in the coming years will suffer the same terrible fate of losing a child.
It is important that we all approach the Bill in a non-partisan manner, which is always a pleasure because it happens so infrequently in this House. Some things are just too important to be considered party political and go well beyond the realms of party affiliation, which is why I am hugely encouraged by the tone of hon. Members’ opening remarks. My regret is that in the run-up to the Bill, I was not insightful or prepared enough to work with other hon. Members to table cross-party amendments. That would have given the important signal that this is not a party political issue. I hold my hands up to that.
Many people who have not undergone the experience of losing their child will not understand that there is no protection—they have never had any reason to make inquiries into that. It has taken us so long to get to this point because it is so difficult to even broach the subject of the death of a child. It has been taboo for too long, and thankfully, that is changing.
For too long, parents have had no formal protection under employment law. Together, today, we can seek to put that right. By passing some of the amendments, I hope we can put it right in a way of which we can be truly proud.
Like the hon. Member for North West Durham, this is my first appearance in a Bill Committee. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I know you have a reputation for being a hard taskmaster, and that you do not suffer fools gladly, but I hope you will be at least a little gentle with the Front-Bench Members as we proceed in this important debate.
As a Minister with the vast experience of some two weeks in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it is actually very humbling to be here and to take part in this important debate. We come into public life and into politics to help people and to make a difference. As a child of the ’80s, I am reminded of the M People song:
“What have you done today to make you feel proud?”
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and everybody involved with the Bill can feel proud that we have reached this point. The Bill will change the lives of those affected by the death of a child. It really will make a massive contribution, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on making such significant progress with this important Bill. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester on the work that he has done.
I have been in the House since 2010, and Bills and debates have come and gone. Sometimes they stick in our minds, sometimes they pass us by and the amount of time and energy given to them in our thoughts is fleeting. One thing that I remember incredibly vividly in this place was listening to the Adjournment debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, I think back in November 2015—and, of course, the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. The raw emotion in the Chamber during those speeches was incredible. I do not think a single Member was not moved almost to the point of tears, and beyond that in some cases, by the devastating human story that we heard play out and the desire that no other parent should have to go through that. It is an old adage that no parent should ever bury their child.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran spoke about this being almost a taboo subject—something that we do not wish to talk about. That reminded me of my own experience. I am delighted to say that Mrs Griffiths is with child. When I became a Business Minister, the first thing they told me on the day I walked through the door of the Department was that the next day I would be answering Women and Equalities questions, and that the first question would be on flexible paternity. I had to declare an interest, as I intend to take my full paternity leave.
I therefore look at this through the lens of a dad-to-be. I am reminded of the other evening. We were sat at home in Burton, and my wife, who is now getting bigger by the day, was on the sofa. She was enthralled by “Dancing on Ice” and I was deep in my red box, doing my ministerial work. She shouted out because she had her mobile phone resting on her belly and the baby—we do not know yet whether it is a boy or a girl—had kicked the mobile phone off her belly. We are just going through those emotions of realising that there is a little person in there; there is a little Andrew or a little Kate growing inside my wife, and it is hugely exciting and emotional. To think that the unthinkable could happen, that all the potential of that little child inside my wife might come to nothing, that it might all be wasted, is something that none of us want to talk about.
From my perspective, I am very proud of what I do as a Member of Parliament, but my wife is even prouder. Normally, whatever I am doing in the Chamber or in the House, I will text her, particularly if it is something that might be visible and that she can see on TV. She loves to sit at home in Burton and turn on the Parliament channel and watch my wonderful oration. It just dawned on me that I had not told her about this debate, and it was a deliberate thing. I deliberately chose not to tell her that I was taking part in this debate, because I did not want her to have to think about it. I did not want to plant that seed in her mind at a time when she is excited, nervous, apprehensive—all those things. I did not want to plant the seed that something could go wrong.
It is for all of us, particularly us in this place, to come to terms with these things and address them, and to plan. None of us wants to be in that situation; as I said, we have heard such moving speeches setting out the pain, devastation and anguish that come with the loss of a child. It is right that we are tackling it in this Bill. I am grateful that we have cross-party support to take it forward. I am mindful of what my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester says. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton on the dexterity he has shown so far in getting the Bill to this point.
In a previous life, however, I was a Government Whip. I learned a great deal as a Government Whip, not just about our colleagues and how reliable or unreliable they can be but about the vagaries of this place and the way that the system works for private Member’s Bills. It is a precarious process. There are so many twists and turns and dead ends that a private Member’s Bill can find itself in, and it takes great skill, great perseverance and a great deal of luck to get such a Bill over the line and have it become legislation.
We must all recognise the precarious nature of the Bill and how important it is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester says, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. That is a wonderful phrase. This Bill will do great good, but we must ensure that we get it on the statute books. As we have heard, with the skilful drafting of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, this is a framework Bill. It allows and enables the Government to come forward with legislation through secondary legislation, but it is important that we get it on the statute books. That is the one thing I would try to impress on all parties in this room today: we must make progress.
I am the new face of the Government in relation to this Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Margot James. Her brief—my new brief—is a massive one. I am the small business Minister, but I am also the Minister for the labour market, the postal service, competition, insolvency, unions and the retail sector. When she did her handover to me when she left the Department and I took over, she had to impart knowledge and bring me up to speed as regards what was happening in the portfolios on a whole host of issues. But the most important thing she talked about, the one thing she impressed on me more than anything else, was the necessity of getting this Bill through and delivering. She cares about it in the same way as hon. Members have demonstrated, and as I do.
As the new face of the Government, I can confirm that the Government stand resolutely behind the Bill. We want to see it enacted and benefiting all those people who are so terribly affected by the loss of a child or by stillbirth. It is an important measure and we want to see it in place. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton that clauses 1 and 2 are the means to give effect to the schedule and the relevant procedural information. We should therefore progress towards consideration of the schedule, which is where the detail and the meat of the Bill is.
I thank all members of the Committee for their wonderful contributions. I am delighted to see cross-party support for this very important Bill, and I am keen to move on to the substance of the Bill at the earliest opportunity.