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House of Commons Hansard
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Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement)
06 September 2016
Volume 614

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

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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 parents who have suffered the loss of a child a statutory right to two weeks’ paid leave. May I start by paying tribute to the former Member for Glasgow South, who campaigned for this change, and to the many hon. and right hon. Members across the House who support this campaign?

Every Member of the House will agree that there can be few more distressing life events than the loss of a child. Yet, with up to 5,000 children dying every year, many thousands of parents go through this personal tragedy. As the House is aware, my wife and I lost our son, who was stillborn full term, in October 2014, and I was entitled to two weeks off work, protected by statute under the paternity rules. As it happened, I had a very understanding employer, so my legal rights did not come into question. However, it was comforting to know that I was entitled to two weeks off work by law—that I could take that time as needed to come to terms with the incredible loss. I know how valuable it was to spend precious time with my wife coming to terms with what had just happened, registering the death, making the arrangements for the funeral and preparing to say goodbye.

I cannot begin to understand what it would feel like to lose a child at seven months or at two, five, 10 or 15 years old. The grief must be unbearable, and my heart goes out to any parent who has had to go through this most terrible of life events. Yet, why should those parents not have the same protection in law as those who lose a baby through stillbirth or in the first few days and months of life? In such situations, a bereaved mother and father are entitled to full maternity and paternity leave, but if someone loses a child or an older baby—nothing. Surely that cannot be right.

At present, there is no statutory right to take time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds. However, all employees have the right to take immediate time off for dependants; in effect, that is a legal right to take time off unpaid to take the necessary action. Yet, there is no set limit on how many days can be taken as leave and a rather vague definition of a reasonable amount of time. Further, there is no statutory right to be paid during this reasonable amount of time. The reference to taking action distinguishes this form of leave from bereavement or compassionate leave. The type of action contemplated by the relevant provision is arranging and attending a funeral, registering the death and so on; it does not provide a right to leave to cope with the emotional reaction to the child’s death. An employee’s right to bereavement leave is therefore not protected by law in this respect, and the duty to show compassion is left entirely to the employer’s better judgment.

To be clear, most employers are excellent; they act with compassion and kindness, offering their bereaved staff the time they need to come to terms with their loss. However, some do not, and they behave in a manner that falls well short of what we would expect of them. Of course, we expect employers to act with sensitivity and flexibility in situations like this. Yet, given the countless examples of organisations acting without sensitivity and with utter inflexibility, surely it is time for the Government to act.

I am certainly alive to the pressures on businesses at the moment—especially small businesses—and I am loth to introduce any additional regulatory burden. However, given the relatively and thankfully small number of bereaved parents annually, the cost to business would be small. There is also an argument that such a proposal is beneficial to business. Most employers already go out of their way to treat their staff with compassion and often give them fully paid leave. This change would allow them to recover some of the cost of doing so.

So how much would this cost? It is difficult to say, because it would largely come down to the eligibility criteria, but research conducted by the House of Commons Library suggests that the cost could be as little as £2 million per year. However, the reality is that every bereaved parent is different; some will want to take time off, and others will want to get straight back to work. In the same way, not everyone takes their full maternity or paternity rights. The issue, however, is that they have the choice and protection by law.

Some will come at this from a religious perspective. In Hinduism, for example, when a death occurs, relatives are required to observe a 13-day mourning period after cremation. In Judaism, family members are required to stay at home for seven days of mourning after a death.

Statutory bereavement leave is a common right across Europe and in many countries across the world. While the exact conditions vary in terms of total time off and whether said leave is paid or unpaid, it is remarkable that one can argue that Albania or Bosnia and Herzegovina have better worker rights in this area than us. My proposal would give UK workers some of the best bereavement rights in the world in terms of the length of leave possible. While other countries, such as Israel, offer leave with full salary, longer leave at a lower statutory rate is a good starting point.

This is also a popular idea. The 2014 report “Life After Death” from the National Bereavement Alliance and the National Council for Palliative Care quoted research from ComRes, which showed that 81% of people agreed that there should be a legal right to receive paid bereavement leave. The Government e-petition calling for bereavement leave for parents, organised by campaigner Lucy Herd, has over 25,000 signatures, and a Change.org petition has over 165,000 signatures. The campaign also has the support of many organisations, including Child Bereavement UK, the Lullaby Trust, Working Families, Cruse Bereavement Care, Dying Matters—the list goes on.

I fully appreciate the concerns the Government and other Members of the House may have over such a Bill. It will not be perfect. There will always be sincere disagreements over the length of time given and the eligibility criteria. However, let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. This Bill would be an important first step, giving thousands of bereaved parents up and down the country the opportunity to come to terms with their grief without feeling the pressure of having to return to work. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Will Quince, Johnny Mercer, Frank Field, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, Suella Fernandes, Wes Streeting, James Cartlidge, Greg Mulholland, Mike Wood, James Cleverly and Stella Creasy present the Bill.

Will Quince accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 October, and to be printed (Bill 60).