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Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement)

Volume 567: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2013

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

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for statutory entitlement to leave of absence from employment for bereaved parents; and for connected purposes.

I seek leave to introduce a Bill to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to give all parents who have suffered the loss of a child a statutory right to paid leave. May I begin by thanking Members from all parts of the House, many of whom are present, for their support for this Bill? First, I wish to highlight the work of Lucy Herd and the Jack’s Rainbow campaign she established after the loss of her 23-month-old son, Jack, in tragic circumstances in August 2010. After his son’s death, Lucy’s partner was given just five days’ compassionate leave before having to return to work. Like many Members of the House I have spoken to, Lucy was surprised that parents did not already have a legal right to paid leave after the loss of a child, and I want to pay tribute to her for working tirelessly to get paid bereavement leave for grieving parents on to the statute book.

Most of us can imagine nothing more distressing than losing a child. Yet at this traumatic juncture in a parent’s life, there is no guarantee of paid statutory leave in the event of a child’s death. The physical and emotional toll on parents demands such a provision. In the immediate aftermath of a child’s passing, bereaved parents must cope not only with their own grief, but with that of their family. Siblings must be comforted, and family and friends informed. To add to the burden, a great deal of administrative work and other arrangements must be undertaken: a funeral needs to be organised, and schools and benefit offices must be notified. And in the case of a sudden or accidental death, a post-mortem or inquest is required. That may take many months to conclude, prolonging the anguish.

At present, all employees have the right to take immediate “time off for dependants” under the Employment Rights Act 1996. That is a legal right to unpaid leave to cope with family emergencies. However, there is no set limit on how many days can be taken, only a vague definition of a “reasonable amount of time”. Each employer will have their own bereavement policy, which typically provides for just three to five days’ leave.

In response to an e-petition calling for statutory bereavement leave, which has received almost 23,000 signatures, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills stated that all requests for leave related to bereavement are best left to employers and their employees to decide between themselves. I understand that the amount of leave needed can vary from one individual to another: some parents will not be able to face going back to work, whereas others may find returning to work a welcome distraction. Grief is not uniform—it affects people in different ways—and each person will need a time specific to them to deal with it.

Many employers act admirably and offer significant amounts of paid bereavement leave. Regrettably, however, some do not. In a large number of cases, employers have fallen far short of their duties. In one case that was recently televised on an episode of Channel 4’s “Undercover Boss”, a driver for the waste disposal company Biffa was forced back to work just a day after the loss of his daughter. In another tragic case a father, a builder, was expected back to work five days after he lost his daughter to sudden infant death syndrome. Despite feeling unready to return to work, having barely slept, the man was told to resume work or lose his job. On yet another occasion, a parent was given just three days off after the death of his four-year-old son. The funeral was arranged on the fourth day, leading to the man having to use up his paid holiday leave to attend. I wish those were isolated events, but they are not, and I could list many more.

In their response to the e-petition, the Government stated that they

“would expect any employer to respond to”

the loss of a child

“with sensitivity and flexibility”.

I find it difficult to believe, given the tragic cases I have just highlighted, that any Minister could find any merit in that statement. All grieving parents should be treated with dignity, and I hope the Government will acknowledge that under the current system that is not happening.

The Government have stated that it would be difficult to specify statutory bereavement leave entitlement because “limits, standards and definitions” would need to be put in place. The Government have also argued that it would be difficult to define

“what family relationship would qualify for such leave”

and that it would be

“impossible to legislate for every circumstance”.

I find that argument disingenuous. What limits, standards and definitions would be too complicated to establish in the case of a parent losing a child? Surely the Government should start from the moral case that parents should be afforded time off if their child passes away, and not finding obscure excuses not to act.

Again, I am under no illusions that the time needed varies from one individual to another, but instead of absolving themselves of all responsibility and leaving this to employers, Ministers should be working towards guaranteeing best practice. That can only be achieved through legislation.

The government have also argued it would be “impossible to legislate” for

“every family relationship that would qualify for such leave”.

How about a simple provision whereby only the parents of the deceased child are afforded statutory leave? That is a straightforward, common-sense way to proceed. I fully acknowledge that long-term staff absenteeism can hit productivity, particularly for small companies, but considering that parents are given paid maternity and paternity leave, it is difficult to argue why grief-stricken parents should not be afforded similar statutory rights. A mother is afforded up to 12 months’ leave for the birth of a child, but is given just three days for her loss. How can that be? On what moral basis can we give precedence to one and not the other?

I do not intend the measure to place unaffordable costs or unwanted regulation on employers. In fact, the circumstances that would give rise to such leave are as rare as they are tragic, and as I have said, most employers already choose to recognise their responsibilities to their workers. I know the current economic climate is pushing many businesses to the edge, but that also goes for ordinary families across the country. With the cost of living rising, grieving parents should never be forced to choose between meeting their responsibilities to their families and putting food on the table.

Parents who suffer the loss of a child must be allowed to grieve with dignity. That can only be guaranteed by a statutory right to paid bereavement leave, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Tom Harris, Stella Creasy, Dr William McCrea, Mr Stewart Jackson, Kwasi Kwarteng, Andy Sawford, Mr David Anderson, Iain Stewart, Tracey Crouch, Natascha Engel, Sheila Gilmore and Greg Mulholland present the Bill.

Mr Tom Harris accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 October, and to be printed (Bill 104).